Reviewed by Lyle Zimskind
Through February 19
How anyone gets remembered, as the transcendentally popular new Broadway musical Hamilton’s finale reminds us, depends on “Who Lives, Who Dies, Who Tells Your Story.” Businessman and philanthropist Richard Scheuer died prematurely of a perhaps stress-induced brain aneurysm when his son Benjamin was only 14 years old. In an alternate life, Benjamin Scheuer muses at the beginning of his theatrical song cycle The Lion, the father who first taught him guitar and enjoyed singing folk songs at home might have pursued a successful musical career. Instead, the prodigious math genius studied economics at Harvard and law at Columbia, and grew so intemperate that he stomped on his son’s toys in the street and harshly punished him for a bad report card. Later, Benjamin could hardly fathom the many descriptions of Richard as a warm and generous friend, colleague and family member in a privately published memorial book.
Benjamin’s conflict with his father (and for a while afterward with his mother and two brothers), the meet-cute inception and prolonged sad demise of a romantic relationship, and a debilitating battle with cancer are all primary themes of this 70-minute, seven-guitar solo show, which won a Drama Desk Award in 2015 and has played in numerous cities around the US. Grim as this subject matter may sound, The Lion is pretty upbeat thanks to Scheuer’s magnetic stage persona and charismatic performances of one catchy original song after another.
Directed by Sean Daniels, Scheuer establishes an uncannily intimate rapport with his audience from the moment he steps out on stage and begins singing about the homemade “cookie tin banjo” his father gave him as a child. “Some stories have to be sung,” reads The Lion’s promotional poster outside the Geffen Playhouse, and this traumatically honest first-person account of Scheuer’s life up to about age 30 might well have come across as self-indulgent if presented in the form a spoken-word monologue or autobiographical essay. Here, though, the simple guitar-and-vocal melodic arrangements imbue all the very specific self-unsparing personal details of his experience with some emotional universality.
Alternately contentious and confessional, Scheuer’s narrative offers little pretense of deep personal insight gained from his travails or even a strong sense of personal agency over his fate (the show’s climactic dramatic event is the delivery of a doctor’s medical report). By the end, though, he does manage to convince us that the hope he’s achieved is genuinely hard-won and has us rooting for him all the way, buoyed by the story that he’s lived to tell us about himself.
Geffen Playhouse, 10886 Le Conte Avenue, Westwood. Tues.-Sun., 8 p.m.; Sat., 3 p.m.; Sun., 2 p.m.; through February 19. (310) 208-5454 or www.geffenplayhouse.org. Running time: 70 minutes with no intermission.