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What it means to roar

Theater Review: "The Lion" at Geva 

What it means to roar

There's a performance term called the "first three seconds," which refers to those hushed moments when the lights go down and a show begins. An expert artist knows how to capture the attention of the audience in those moments. During the first three seconds of "The Lion," part of Geva's Fielding Studio Series, performer Benjamin Scheuer walks onstage with a smile, picks up a guitar, and begins to sing his story -- one that begins with his childhood love for music and a cookie tin banjo.

"The Lion" is a critically acclaimed one-man show written and performed by Scheuer and directed by Geva's former artist-in-residence Sean Daniels, who is now the artistic director at Merrimack Repertory Theatre. It's a brilliant, brave 75 minutes as Scheuer recounts the last 18 years of his life, from a tumultuous father-son relationship and brash, rebellious teen years to a spirited, indecisive romance and a near-death battle with disease. (To describe the storyline in further detail would be a disservice to potential audience members and the experience that is "The Lion.") Throughout, Scheuer is the only character officially onstage, though his sandy mop of hair often seems to be a supporting character, taking on a life of its own as Scheuer moves to the music.

It's important to note that Scheuer isn't a trained actor: he's a stunning musician sharing his autobiography. The scenic design by Neil Patel -- a warm-hued, intimate recording studio -- plays to this theme. The intuitive lighting design by Ben Stanton guides the audience through a range of emotion and locations in the show. Costume Consultant Jennifer Caprio has advised a simple suit with suspenders befitting Scheuer's part-British ancestry and looks. But the reason it all works so well is due in part to the specific direction of Daniels, and in part to the finely crafted songwriting of Scheuer. He plays six guitars throughout the show, his fingers masterfully riffing and plucking at strings that catch the lights above. Complementing folksy ballads and electric wails are lyrics like "Sometimes being brave is being scared," "The song I hear inside my ears," and "Inside my gentle paws I've got some devastating claws."

Remarkably, even after hundreds of rehearsals and performances, Scheuer's spoken and sung words rattle with emotion. Glimpses of raw pain flash across his face and the most poignant melodies leave most audience members in tears. By the end of the show, each soul in the dark theater has become Scheuer's confidant -- a telltale mark of great storytelling.

"The Lion" (originally called "The Bridge") premiered at Edinburgh Fringe Festival with sold-out runs in 2013, and went on to play Off-Broadway, Off-West End in London, and is currently on a limited tour of the United States through 2016. This year, "The Lion" won the Drama Desk Award for Best Solo Performance, an "Offie" (Off-West End) Award for Best New Musical, and a Theatre World Award for Exceptional Off-Broadway Debut.

In addition to performing, Scheuer is a member of the band Escapist Papers and is currently recording an album of the songs in "The Lion." Two of the songs featured in "The Lion" can be seen in animation form on vimeo.com/radishpictures.

Scheuer will host a songwriting master class on Friday, November 20, from 11 a.m. until 1 p.m. at Geva. The event is free and open to the public (observers welcome). To be one of the writers Scheuer works with, email an audio or video recording of a song you've written to BenjaminScheuer@yahoo.com, by noon on Wednesday, November 18.

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