LOWELL — Benjamin Scheuer’s autobiographical show “The Lion” lives somewhere in between the forms of musical, cabaret performance, and song cycle. So it delivers more entertainment than a simple album of his songs, less psychological insight than one might hope for upon a trip to the theater, but all the feel-good triumph of a sentimental musical.
Judging by the millisecond or so it took an opening night audience to leap to its feet in a standing ovation — an echo of the popularity the show experienced in prior London and New York runs — that sweet, sentimental stuff is a real crowd-pleaser. (“The Lion” won Scheuer the Drama Desk Award for outstanding solo performance this year.)
Director Sean Daniels, who developed “The Lion” with Scheuer in residence at Vermont’s Weston Playhouse, chose the show to open his first season as artistic director at Merrimack Repertory Theatre, where it plays through Sept. 20 before launching a tour that is currently booked through next June.
The premise is simple. On unaccompanied guitar (mainly acoustic, though two mid-show songs on electric add welcome contrast), Scheuer plays folky autobiographical songs that are mainly about his sometimes-troubled relationship with his family, a love affair, and a grave illness. They are linked by contextual stories in which he voices the comments of key figures like his parents and a girlfriend named Julia.
Neil Patel’s simple set suggests the foggy memory of a rundown living room, and Ben Stanton’s lighting design heightens the drama at key moments and helps with the story’s pacing. Scheuer wears a blue suit (Jennifer Caprio is credited as costume consultant), pieces of which he removes throughout the evening in an apparent manifestation of his emotional exposure.
Scheuer’s talents show most clearly as a songwriter and a song performer. He is an able finger-picker, and his unpretentious but affecting vocals put his lyrics at the forefront. He proves particularly inventive, and poignant, when singing pieces cleverly written in the voice of a mortal disease or of a deceased family member. Opening song “Cookie-tin Banjo” is utterly charming, with an earnest thank you to a father who “gave the gift of music to his son.”
That note of gratitude is swiftly complicated by a series of conflicts the young Scheuer had with his father, a successful academic who grew less supportive of his son’s artistic interests once they impaired his grades in mathematics. A tumultuous event leads to their conflict remaining unresolved, though Scheuer is unnecessarily vague about the specifics, leaving the audience with distracting questions.
The opening third or so of the show sets up some promising thematic elements, as we wait to see how this childhood relationship plays out in adult life and what insights it will prompt. But as the story moves to a romance, and then the illness, “The Lion” grows episodic and leans less on dramatic momentum and more on the teary-eyed, smiling charm of its performer. We feel we’re building toward life lessons that will tie the incidents together, but a lyrical gesture in that direction finally feels merely tossed off. Yet it’s a pleasure to watch Scheuer perform, and the impression of emotional honesty he conveys is very attractive.
Scheuer has a playwright’s eye for detail, and succeeds better when listing a girlfriend’s pleasant quirks or detailing the effects of illness than when unfurling platitudes for the big “message” moments. (“I’m learning what it means to really roar,” he creakily declares in the song from which the show takes its title.)
The show’s insights — a father’s disapproval can cause resentment, love is rewarding but painful, serious illness reveals the importance of family — are not revelatory. But Scheuer winningly shows he can pluck the audience’s heartstrings as skillfully as he does his guitar.
Written and performed by Benjamin Scheuer.
Directed by Sean Daniels.
At Nancy L. Donahue Theatre, Merrimack Repertory Theatre, Lowell.
Jeremy D. Goodwin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @jeremydgoodwin.