Presented by Merrimack Repertory Theatre
By Benjamin Scheuer
Directed by Sean Daniels
Review by Travis Manni
(Lowell, MA) While no African cats ever pounced on stage, much to my dismay, I will say that the Merrimack Repertory Theatre’s production of The Lion, which marks both the start of the theatre’s 2015-16 season as well as Sean Daniel’s Artistic Directorial debut at the MRT, took me quite off guard.
This is a stripped show. The stage is simply decorated with a rear wall, some microphones, seven guitars, and not much else. And the simplistic approach shouldn’t be too shocking—it’s an autobiographical, solo musical written and performed by folksy musician Benjamin Scheuer. What I was shocked at was how such a personal story, one of parental neglect, cancer, and discovering artistic freedom, could feel relatable, like coming home to family.
Benjamin takes to the stage and jumps right into the story of his youth. His father, a man that many people have fond memories of, was verbally abusive to him and died shortly after getting into a fight with Ben, the eldest of three sons. But despite the poor relationship, his father did teach him how to play guitar, and he tells stories of family, love, and hardship through music.
But is the music any good? Well, all stories need an exposition, so yeah, some of the songs did feel a bit forced. And I can’t admit to being a fan of folk music because it often sounds quite campy. But they’re a great way to tell stories, so if you can get past the couple of songs that drag, and there are probably only 2 that I thought could’ve just been spoken monologues, the coming-of-age narrative that Benjamin weaves with his voice and guitar strings is bound to set your foot to tapping.
My personal struggle with the show was the excessive amount of telling versus showing. I suppose for a solo musical to function, the main character is going to have to do a great deal of telling the audience exactly what’s on his mind, and maybe that’s more personal. Still, I couldn’t help thinking at several points during the show how nice it would be to see another character come on stage and interact with this man, or maybe just a voiceover to give an illusion of a life outside the stage.
That said, I was never bored with Benjamin’s performance during the show. His enthusiasm for music was able to infect the audience, enough to warrant an immediate standing ovation at the end of the show, which I was more than happy to join. And it was obvious that the songs Benjamin sang, the ones he belted out with great emotion and fervor, were the ones that felt like universal narratives the audience was able to attach themselves to.
So while you won’t see a lion lunge onto the stage, you will hear the story of a man learning to come into his own and discovering his own type of roar. I may not have ever seen a lion up close and personal, but I imagine the strength Benjamin exhibited on stage is as magnificent and breathtaking as the African cat.
The Lion originally premiered off-Broadway in 2014, and then spent some time in London’s off-West End, earning a handful of awards along the way. It is currently on a national tour and will be at the Merrimack Repertory Theater in Lowell until September 20th. For tickets and dates, click here. The show runs for 80 minutes with no intermission.