Audiences for The Lion, balladeer Benjamin Scheuer’s solo autobiographical coming-of-age rumination about love, loss, regret and finding his voice as an artist, might be forgiven for momentarily thinking they’ve wandered into an acoustical set in the back room of McCabe's Guitar Shop rather than an evening of musical theater at the Geffen Playhouse.
Dressed in a smartly tailored business suit and seated amid a modest thicket of acoustic guitars and mic stands (on designer Neil Patel’s weathered, bare-room set), the engaging and personable folk-pop performer commands the Geffen’s intimate Audrey Skirball Kenis Theater with the charisma and technical confidence of a veteran club player.
But sometimes what looks like a duck, swims like a duck and quacks like a duck will soar like a swan. And soon after the New York–based Scheuer launches into the first of his 15-song score with an ingratiating, almost Norman Rockwell–esque family portrait of his Manhattan childhood called “Cookie Tin Banjo,” foreshadowings of a far more fraught and intensely moving Oedipal drama begin to emerge.
Recalling an early memory in which his father, a general partner in a Wall Street arbitrage firm, begins to exhibit irrational rages over his son’s fixation on music and play rather than academics, Scheuer describes a childhood incident playing with a friend when the senior Scheuer angrily breaks his squirt gun.
“What do you do when your dad breaks your toys?” Scheuer naively asks his friend. “And he looks at me like I’m insane.”
The deeply conflicted relationship forms the heart of The Lion's musical narrative. In a song that includes the lyric “What makes a lion a lion?” (and that lends the evening both its title and its metaphoric trajectory), his father passes on his love for music even as he frustrates Scheuer’s determination to pursue it.
The Lion spreads its dramatic wings with its fourth number, “Weather the Storm,” a shantylike anthem of resilience in the face of adversity, which introduces the evening’s bleakest — and most fateful — passages. It includes a prideful standoff of silence over a bad math grade, which ends tragically when Scheuer’s father dies of a brain aneurism, leaving the adolescent’s last words a wounding note accusing the elder of being “the kind of man that I don’t want to be.”
Absolving such haunting guilt and resentment will require both maturity and tribulation. The former comes via Scheuer's rocky relationship with Julia while a young rock musician in Manhattan (covered in a trio of offbeat love songs) and culminates in an incident when his father’s acoustic guitar is stolen from his car outside CBGB. His emotionally arid mother’s offhand comment that “your dad would be so disappointed” spurs him to finally mourn and emotionally reconnect with the dead man through a graveside visit and the wistfully moving ballad “Build a Bridge.”
The evening’s second half chronicles Scheuer’s breakup with Julia and, in a suite of chillingly detailed songs, his harrowing brush with Hodgkin's lymphoma, which ultimately allows him to fully reconcile with the past. Its high points include the triumphantly rousing “Golden Castle Town,” in which the now 30-year-old singer celebrates his physical recovery; “Dear Dad,” a wrenching and affecting ballad of forgiveness; and the titular, aphoristic finale “The Lion,” in which Scheuer spells out the hard-won life lesson of “what it means to really roar.”
If it lacks the invention, ambition or sprawling spectacle associated with more conventional stage musicals, under Sean Daniels’ fluid direction (aided by Ben Stanton’s sculpted concert lighting and Leon Rothenberg’s crisp sound), The Lion rarely disappoints. At its most affecting and inspired moments, Scheuer’s persuasive melodies and gravelly intensity deliver a cathartic power elevated by song that remains the uniquely thrilling hallmark of the best musical theater.
GO! Audrey Skirball Kenis Theater at the Geffen Playhouse, 10886 Le Conte Ave., Westwood; through Feb. 19. (310) 208-5454, geffenplayhouse.com.