I spent much of "The Lion," singer-songwriter Benjamin Scheuer's one-man musical at the Geffen Playhouse, inwardly commiserating with my twentysomething self. She hung out in so many coffee shops all those years ago, strung out on caffeine and poetry slams, waiting in vain for someone exactly like Scheuer to walk in with his guitar.
Scheuer plays this guitar — actually, six of them throughout his show, with different tunings, for different moods — as if he invented the instrument: fearlessly, idiosyncratically, effortlessly. Also, not only does he have the looks and charisma of a rock star, with his thick, dirty-blond hair, dreamy half-smile and debonair blue suit, but he comes across as devastatingly soulful.
In autobiographical songs and anecdotes that focus on his complicated relationship with his family, he tells a story of suffering, regret, despair and hope in a conversational tone with a playful touch. His style and his offbeat, intelligent lyrics have been compared to Paul Simon's. Good call: Scheuer's melodies may not be quite as irresistible as Simon's best, but Scheuer's delivery is equally frank and generous. He performs with a tear in his eyes and a smile in his voice.
As if all that weren't beguiling enough, he also includes a bittersweet love story about a magical girlfriend named Julia who found his old acoustic guitar under his bed and asked him to write a song for her. At the time, Scheuer had forsworn the acoustic guitar for personal reasons and was playing only electric guitar (skillfully, as he demonstrates) in public — but he complied out of love. The resulting song, "Laugh," which he triumphantly performed live at the New York club CBGB, helped him to rediscover his secret acoustic soul. It has lyrics like "You make me laugh with your impression of a friendly pterodactyl's mating sound," and it got to even the sensible, middle-aged me.
"He would have been the perfect boy for you," I sighed to my inner twentysomething. "You might not have opened him up to life like that Julia, but you wouldn't have hurt him so badly, either."
To which my inner twentysomething retorted: "You took me to the wrong coffee shops."
Scheuer apparently developed "The Lion" by performing in Greenwich Village cafes, and although the show is billed as a musical, Sean Daniels' intimate direction and Neil Patel's simple set design evoke those origins. It's a continuous surprise — albeit a pleasant one — not to be distracted mid-chord by the grinding of beans or the hiss of a milk frother. What elevates "The Lion" above typical coffee-house performances — beyond the theater setting — is its craftsmanship, both in the songwriting and in the experience as a whole. The performance is only about 70 minutes, and it's deceptively straightforward. But the vibe of casual, unrehearsed immediacy masks the narrative complexity of a novel or an opera, along with densely layered themes that reverberate musically and emotionally.
The heart of "The Lion" is Scheuer's struggle to forgive his father — and himself — for a long-ago rift. Too much information here would spoil the songs, which are each stories in themselves, often saving up a shocking revelation for the final couplet. Suffice it to say that Scheuer's father, Rick, is villain and hero in his story. Rick introduced him to his "greatest source of joy," the guitar, but also bullied him.
"What makes a lion a lion?" Scheuer recalls his father asking once in a folk song, in a tender moment that turned abruptly sour. Scheuer's answers to this question change in emotionally satisfying ways throughout his performance, as he struggles toward maturity.
Scheuer has made an album out of "The Lion," but the engagement at the Geffen is the last stop on a two-year tour and the last time, he says, he will perform the piece live. In other words, a good time to get tickets.
Where: Audrey Skirball Kenis Theater at the Geffen Playhouse, 10886 Le Conte Ave., Los Angeles
When: 8 p.m. Tuesdays through Fridays, 3 and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays; ends Feb. 19
Information: (310) 208-5454 or www.geffenplayhouse.com
Running time: 1 hour, 10 minutes
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