Generally speaking, a guy with a guitar is most often a prosaic sight. A guy with a guitar and a story, while rarer, is still as ubiquitous as seashells in an Atlantic City souvenir shop. But Benjamin Scheuer with a guitar and a story - now that’s something to sit up and take notice of.
A professional musician/songwriter, Scheuer grew up in New York and the UK, his mother’s native country. His father, an American with an economics degree from Harvard and a law degree from Columbia, while irritated by his son’s lack of skill in mathematics and his weak motivation to pursue a life in academia, nevertheless, inspired his life in music at an early age when he sang him a folk song. He also built him a simple banjo from a cookie-tin lying around, which got him hooked on music before his teens and sent him on his professional journey.
Scheuer is currently retelling his life’s story with the aid of seven guitars, all turned to a different key, at the City Theatre on Pittsburgh’s South Side. For someone still in his early to mid-30s, not only does he have quite a story to tell, but he also has a masterful way of telling it - through 16 songs of his own making with brief snippets of connecting narrative in between.
At the City Theatre, Scheuer enters the stage from a back door of the set by Neil Patel that reminded me of some of the furnished rooms in a low rent district I’d encountered in film. Unobtrusive and restrained, the set soon recedes into the background allowing our focus to zone in on the actor. Full of insouciance and self-confidence, he makes a powerful first impression, dressed in a light blue suit, white shirt, suspenders, purple socks and a necktie loosely tied around his collar.
I’d take Scheuer for someone in his early to mid-30s that, when looked at at the right angle, somewhat resembles a youthful Ed Norton. Plopping down on a chair, he wastes no time getting to his first tune, a lighthearted ditty about his father, obviously one of the most important influences of his life.
He soon segues into other tunes that chronicle the rift in his relationship with his paternal idol, introduces us via song and spoken word to his mother and two younger brothers, then carries us into adolescence, shows a snide side in a humorous letter to his math teacher, reveals the ups and downs of a first love, then glides into the independence of early adulthood, one that barely leaves time for the family he left behind.
Each part of his life’s journey is captivating, partly due to the meaty, dense lyrics of his songs, partly to the resonant, penetrating melodies that underscore them. (Several of his songs from the show "Cookie-tin Banjo," "Weather the Storm" and "The Lion" have already won awards, and an album "Songs from The Lion" is scheduled for a June release).
Scheuer’s tale is a mix of comic moments, personal insights, dark situations and a health crises that eventually brings him back to family and eventual healing - all convincingly, fervently told through the music and words of his own making. Behind the scenes, lighting designer, Ben Stanton almost poetically bathes the set with color appropriate to the mood of the moment.
Scheuer has already taken "The Lion" on the road to the Arena Stage in the nation’s capital, off-Broadway in New York and San Francisco’s American Conservatory Theater. His one man, musical autobiographical performance captured the 2015Drama Desk Award for Outstanding Solo Performance and a 2015 Theatre World Award.
The Pittsburgh audience the night I attended the theater rose to their feet in a spontaneous burst of appreciation, giving him a well deserved standing ovation. It came after the playing of the title song, "The Lion," a tune that sums up his mature attitude about what it takes to be a man.
Scheuer graciously acknowledged the accolade, then wowed the theater-goers even more with an emotion coda that reprised his initial song, bringing to full circle a truly remarkable evening of theatrical craftsmanship.
"The Lion" is at the City Theatre on Pittsburgh’s South Side through June 5. For tickets, phone 412-431-2489 or www.citytheatrecompany.org.