Home / General / Katie Surrence: “He’s not Joni Mitchell” — Benjamin Scheuer’s <i>The Lion</i>

Katie Surrence: “He’s not Joni Mitchell” — Benjamin Scheuer’s The Lion

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[Intro to Katie’s theater reviews here.]
 In the beginning of The Lion, Benjamin Scheuer’s one-man mostly acoustic-folk musical memoir, he sings “Cookie Tin Banjo,” about a toy he had as a child, the day with his father when he graduated to a real instrument, and his gratitude that he learned to love music with his family. The scene with his father and the scene with us are both charming and intimate. It’s an invitation into the story of the person sitting in front of us. I’ll borrow from that song and the musical, and before I write about what I struggled with, I will say that I am grateful to Benjamin Scheuer for that invitation, and this show. But even though at the end I’d been obviously moved—I produce a lot of fluid when I cry—I told my companion afterwards:

 “Part of me wanted to resist this.”

“Why?”

“He’s not Joni Mitchell,” I began to try to explain.

Which is to say not all these songs are perfectly crafted, crystalline little jewels. There is a directness to his lyrics that can verge into clunkiness, and this occasionally made my walls go up.  I could veer between being on his side and feeling alienated in the course of a single song. In “You Make Me Laugh,” a song about what he loves about his girlfriend, his lines about the things she did—she pulls her stretchy pants over her head, she makes him challah bread—evoked a person with exuberant specificity, but then the phrase “the wacky things you do,” was artless and vague, made her seem less a person, more [insert manic pixie dream traits here].  At times I had an urge to mark up the manuscript: “This here is great, but this you need to push further.”  You can hear this tension in “Cookie Tin Banjo.” It’s one of the successful songs in the show, but it still sits on a knife edge. It feels rooted in a real relationship, and “he gave the gift of music to his boy” is true and unpretentious.  But some lines seem there to fill space.  Is it important that the pick is “little and black,” or is it an easy rhyme with “never looked back”?

They are very different shows, but because much of the thematic material is so similar, it was hard for me to avoid comparing it to last year’s Fun Home, the musical by Jeanine Tesori and Lisa Kron based on Alison Bechdel’s graphic memoir.  Both are about troubled relationship the protagonist has with their father, who died young, and how that relationship planted the seeds that enabled them to grow into artists.  Fun Home was searing. I met Alison Bechdel about a month after I saw it, and I told her that it was about her and about all of us, and I had never in my life seen a play that was so much about its audience, that so confronted us, showed us the story of our lives and families.  I admired her bravery to write about her life as starkly as she had.

The Lion isn’t the kind of thing that will shake you so badly you have trouble calming down afterward. Its portrayal of pain is often gentle, at a bit of remove. Sometimes the stakes aren’t quite high enough. His song about being angry at his father, “St. Rick,” feels gently parodic of teenage angst. But what comes through brilliantly is a warm, adult compassion and appreciation for his parents, and his deep gratitude for music. Both in his songwriting and in his performance, Scheuer is a little better at joy than pain.  His whole person on stage communicates joy. He has a beaming smile and crinkling eyes, he sometimes jumps up and down, and even his mop of hair seems to say that he’s delighted to be there, delighted that we’re there—he invited the latecomers to “come on in,” and expressed concern for a coughing patron.  When he talked about dating his girlfriend it evoked an “aw” from an audience member that made him and the audience all laugh together.  And he’s even better at capturing peace and reconciliation. He sings about an imagined phone conversation between his dead father and his mother, now in a new relationship.  His father matter-of-factly checks in on the passage of time and their family, and takes comfort that she is not alone. Then he disappears out of consciousness again.  My resistance entirely melted.  Scheuer best shows loss as the quiet negative space left over when he shows love.

The ability to communicate peace, reconciliation, and gratitude and make them specific and genuine, not abstracted away from life story but embedded in one, is rare in songwriting.  By the end, when he answers the question posed by his father, “What makes a lion?”, “It’s not a roar that makes a lion/It’s the pride,” he has earned it.  A line that could have been cutesy or easy achieves the sweet, deep simplicity of great folk.

Fun Home felt like being in the overwhelming throes of memory; The Lion felt like coming to terms with it. This musical wasn’t raw like Fun Home, but in a different way I was impressed by the bravery it took to make and show such a simple, honest thing.  Even if at times it felt a little too prettily wrapped, it was still a powerful gift.

It plays till July 13 at New York City Center.  Go see it if you can.

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