Review: Simply Put, THE LION Must Be Seen and Heard at Arizona Theatre Company
Max Alexander-Taylor dazzles with commanding simplicity.
By Robert Encila-Celdran. Originally published on BroadwayWorld.com.
If a work of art is inspired by one’s real-life travails, there’s no bigger catalyst for a masterpiece than one’s ruthless fray with desolation and mortality.
That’s what we’re privy to in ATC’s one-man musical that launches the company’s 55th season: a stirringly intimate recounting of one man’s odyssey from existential crisis to triumphant self-renewal.
What makes THE LION a wholly engaging piece of theater is the lucid paradox of its simplicity: a lone performer – stripped of the usual technical pageantry – sharing his compelling songs of wonder and despair (though not without lighthearted anecdotes in between).
THE LION began in 2013 as an inchoate collection of songs by Benjamin Scheuer, who would find his way to director Sean Daniels for the dramaturgical assist in writing the book.
The upshot was a remarkable opportunity for Scheuer to perform the musical off-Broadway and tour the show nationally. It earned the coveted recognition of the Drama Desk and Lucille Lortel awards, among others.
That run ended at The Geffen Playhouse in 2017. The baton has been passed to Max Alexander-Taylor, a unique force of nature who has wielded a dynamic rendition of his own.
While Scheuer drew us in with the sheer impact of his own life story (he is also a marvelous guitarist), Taylor provides us with a theatrical authenticity, whose keen insight into Ben’s constitution gives the story its universal allure.
Ben’s love for music begins as a little boy who longs to learn to play the guitar like his father. Dad is a highly respected academic in public, but his volatile domestic persona confounds and creates a schism between father and son.
While Ben is away at a camp, still seething from a tense encounter with his father, he learns of the man’s passing from sudden illness. It’s also revealed that his dad had suffered from depression. The agony of unresolved conflict haunts Ben to no end.
In the proverbial hero’s journey, Ben is the archetype who sunders his roots to dare his new adventure, moving out of his mother’s comfort zone in London, as a vulnerable teenager, to live a musician’s life in New York City. There he falls in love with a girl, breaks up with the girl, and constantly reminisces about his father.
Time moves on, and amid the lonely musings, he develops a devastating brush with cancer that would alter his swagger. Our hero’s rock-bottom moment is the “supreme ordeal” that wrings out the best of him: the courage to persevere and the vulnerability to welcome his family’s loving support.
The confluence of Ben’s songwriting eloquence and his gritty tale of survival makes THE LION a worthy visit to the theater. Max Alexander-Taylor delivers a commanding performance that features a resonant tenor and a remarkable facility with five guitars. A confident actor, he has a natural gift for storytelling, though much of the nuanced execution can be ascribed to the deft staging ideas of Alex Stenhouse and Sean Daniels, who collaborated on THE LION’S revival.
This is a rare treat. If you’re still on the fence, time to reconsider. There’s one week left before it hits the road.