Benjamin Scheuer is a minstrel with his own story to tell and seven guitars to help him out.
A slim, likeable fellow with unruly hair, neat haberdashery and a haunted grin, Scheuer is a cancer survivor who lost his father before he could say goodbye and grieves eight times a week in professional playhouses such as the Old Globe Theatre’s White Theatre, where he presently is appearing in his solo show The Lion.
Now thirty-something, Scheuer deals in sincerity, lacerating honesty and superior musicianship to celebrate the adult that his late father – and, indeed, his whole family – helped him become in his own eyes: A lion of art spreading a message of positivity.
His father, a Harvard mathematician, sang folk songs to Ben, clearly the defining force in his life. Short of puberty, he put aside the toy banjo with its rubber-band strings when his father bought him the real thing. “Let’s sit on the stairs; I’ll teach you to tune,” was followed shortly by learning the G chord, after which, Ben sings, “I’ve never looked back.”
The show’s early songs tell of organizing his two younger brothers into a Beatles-type band, of writing his own first stuff and of falling so far into music that he nearly failed math. “Not acceptable,” said his father, and the ensuing confrontation had not run its course before the parent’s sudden death.
The rest of the songs, the show and, perhaps, Scheuer’s life is dedicated to his surviving the regret of the loss and establishing how these and other tribulations have made him the lion he now sees himself to be, a process and goal stressed by his father.
As young Ben survives school (difficult) and makes room for himself in the Manhattan music world, Scheuer makes his story hard to resist. Obviously, there’s lots left out and possibly some bending for effect. (He begins a relationship with this girl he meets…on the subway?) But he sells the story and seals the interest with the increasing quality of the music.
Scheuer writes nice melodies and clean-lined lyrics. He’s not afraid to find use for a discovered rhyme (“spank you” and “thank you”) and, if he uses refrain repetition rather too relentlessly to be fashionable, that just helps with the sincerity.
And that’s where Scheuer digs the pay dirt. His deft sketch of Julia, that girl, is wispy but vivid. She’s no more a lioness than he is a lion, as their time together winds down, but she glistens with honest description.
And when it’s time for the cancer, Ben puts aside the guitar and brings out the details, a fearful and depressing process with a stern toll to be paid.
Obviously, he survives. The scant details are poignant and impactful. Fever dreams blend into dry realities and rosy fantasies. And the family he has left behind returns with indispensable succor. He learns, he says, that “It’s not the roar that makes the lion, it’s the pride.”
Director Sean Daniels probably was a major polishing agent on the show from its beginning. Neil Patel has designed a circular platform for Scheuer to roam, lit with haunting subtlety by Ben Stanton. The seven guitars that ring the stage each are described in the program, including their specific tunings. The show ends with a virtuoso cascade of melody so muscular that the instrument needs tuning attention as the applause dies away.
There are some awards in the past and a book and an animated video in the immediate future. I see no mention of new stories.
Minstrels thrive with songs less simple than they seem, songs that deliver the sort of room for rumination that makes theatre resonate. Scheuer adds stern honesty and a survivor’s grateful pride. One day his next road may reveal itself. But not yet.
(Continues in the Old Globe Theatre Sheryl and Harvey White Theatre at 7 p.m. Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Sundays; at 8 p.m. Thursdays-Saturdays; and at 2 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays through Oct. 30, 2016.)