Regional Reviews: Cincinnati
The single act, about 75 minutes, features 16 songs with bits of narration to thread them together. Alexander-Taylor takes the focus on Simon Kenny's minimalist stage, perhaps reminiscent of a coffee house with a small, raised platform. His co-stars are an array of five guitars he uses to perform Scheuer's revelatory songs, and thanks to Andrew Johnson's immaculate sound design, every lyric sung by Alexander-Taylor can be grasped and appreciated. That's kind of remarkable since the actor is something of a guitar monster, showing breathtaking proficiency on everything from old-school instruments such as a 1929 Martin O-18 to a wailing electric Les Paul Goldtop Deluxe. He could put on an instrumental recital that would dazzle most audiences.
But he's onstage to tell a story about a young man's evolution from a devoted child to an angry young man and beyond. We begin with "Cookie-tin Banjo," about a homemade instrument Ben's father Rick made for him. Each song illustrates a stage of Ben's life, from "Three Little Cubs" as Rick relaxes with his three sons–Ben, Adam and Simon–to "Saint Rick," Ben's sarcastic electric-guitar elegy for his late father. At age 10, Ben wanted nothing more than to learn to play folk songs like his dad. When he's playfully asked, "What makes a lion a lion?" Ben struggles to answer, finally suggesting "his roar."
It seems there should be more, and Ben is confused by his father's increasingly stern demeanor. Degrees from Harvard and Columbia and a career in academia have drawn Rick away from a satisfying life as a musician, and parenthood seems to have become a burden. Ben became the unwitting target of Rick's angry frustration.
At age 14, Ben's own frustration boils over, leading him to write a terse note to pin to Rick's bedroom door, renouncing "the kind of man that I don't want to play music with, the kind of man I don't want to be." (He sheepishly admits, "I was a very dramatic 14-year-old.") The Lion navigates smartly between disarming remarks like that and songs that reveal deeper emotions.
Ben is riddled with guilt when Rick dies unexpectedly. His mother leaves New York City with her sons to live in London, but Ben becomes increasingly distant, even when Simon and Adam pursue music, too. Ben returns to New York and meets Julia, whom he woos with an unusual lyric: "You make me laugh with your impression of a friendly pterodactyl's mating sound." She inspires him to return to acoustic music. But their relationship, initially full of promise, sadly goes off the rails. She tells Ben he's "the loneliest person I know" as she goes off to tour the world–and never return. Then he's struck with a life-threatening illness.
This might all sound a tad maudlin, the tale of a struggling artist. But Scheuer's music and Alexander-Taylor's performance pack a wallop without ever becoming too melodramatic. As Ben, the actor maintains eye contact with the audience and sometimes connects personally with people in the front rows. His interaction enhances the feeling that Ben's story is a narrative being shared with a singular friend, more wry confessional than a poor-me tale.
In the song "Weather the Storm," we get a hint at how a young man can endure setbacks and maintain his equilibrium. "Truth gets revealed when you're broken and healed," he sings. "Every heart is made stronger by scars." Ben surely has some scars, but he's a survivor.
The Lion does not have a simplistic happy ending, but we can see that Ben, having just passed the age of 30, has a newfound sense of himself and his role with his family. The closing song, "The Lion," offers a new suggestion of what makes a lion. As Ben reconnects with his estranged mother and siblings, he recognizes that family–a lion's "pride"–is a comforting path forward.
The Lion is full of laughs and tears. Max Alexander-Taylor's guitar skills are astonishing, but the story itself is what audiences are likely to remember.
The Lion runs through December 4, 2022, for The Cincinnati Playhouse, in the Park at the Warsaw Federal Incline Theater, 801 Matson Place, Price Hill, Cincinnati OH. For tickets and information, please visit cincyplay.com or call 513-421-9453.