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'The Lion': Autobiographical musical about family & grief opens at ATC
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'The Lion': Autobiographical musical about family & grief opens at ATC

  • Max Alexander-Taylor stars as Ben in 'The Lion.'
    Arizona Theatre CompanyMax Alexander-Taylor stars as Ben in 'The Lion.'

A sparse stage and even sparser cast — one man and five guitars —greet the audience of Arizona Theatre Company's production of "The Lion." But that doesn't mean the play doesn't pack a punch.

The autobiographical musical, written by Benjamin Scheuer, includes moments that tug at the heart and draw tears, comic interludes, and what one of the directors says are scenes that have caused shocked viewers to "pass out or vomit."

ATC's 2022-23 season kicked off with the opening night of "The Lion" last Friday, as about 100 patrons filled the Temple of Music and Art in Downtown Tucson.

The nearly bare stage was lit by shadeless lamps in different styles and sizes. Five guitars were placed in a raised platform — one beginner's guitar, three acoustics and one electric guitar.

The sole character, Ben, plays "Saint Rick" in his boarding school dorm room after receiving a book written, in memoriam, by his father's colleagues. All of them saying how gentle and kind his father was, never had a bad thing to say about anybody. But the version of Rick whom Ben remembers is the one who would throw glasses of orange juice across rooms or tell him he was no good.

When the mood was meant to be comical, bluegrass came into play. The song "Laugh" was like a track out of a Mumford and Sons album, and it made the audience do just as the title instructs.

The one-man show is directed by Sean Daniels and Alex Stenhouse in ATC's production.

"The Lion" stars London actor Max Alexander-Taylor as Ben. The guitars make up the rest of the cast. The play tells the story of Ben, a boy growing up in New York who dreamed of being a musician. He grew up with his two brothers and his parents. Ben's father would play the guitar for them and a love for music was fostered in his home although his father was a renowned mathematician.

As a teenager, Ben endured the usual teenage angst and issues with his father. One day, Ben traveled with his school band to perform in Washington D.C. That's when tragedy struck, and Ben's world was turned upside down.

"The Lion" debuted at the Southwark Playhouse in London last spring, with Alexander-Taylor playing Ben there as well. The lead actor said the story is "very much about how good things can come out of bad things."

"It's special to see how Ben comes out a more rounded person than he previously was," Alexander-Taylor told the Tucson Sentinel. "It'd be tricky to not move someone."

"This story is all about community and grief and family," Alexander-Taylor said. "It's a really beautiful piece. It's just me telling the story of Ben."

The pandemic caused a bump in the road for "The Lion" opening in London, but the timing proved helpful as Alexander-Taylor was able to practice his skills on the guitar.

Stenhouse said he dealt with the "usual" challenges that come with preparing a musical for the public, but something that stood out to him was some of the reactions audience members would have because of the descriptions of cancer and treatments.

In the song "White Underwear," Ben described his father's condition. His father had a headache, his mother had a look on her face. She called an ambulance. The song has a tense cadence to it. Alexander-Taylor's movements were abrupt, adding to the sense of panic. In his moment of fear, Ben reflects on his relationship with his father, expressing how he doesn't want his father to die while they're in a fight.

Later the audience learns that when Ben returns home from his band trip, his father had died from a brain aneurysm.

Further into the story, Ben is in his 20s when he learns he has lymphoma. He had been sweating through his sheets, he lost about 25 pounds and the lower left side of his back hurts whenever he drinks alcohol.

"When This Thing's Over" shows Ben wishing for the day when his cancer is gone. He wants to go swimming naked every day and indulge in life. He is faced by grief all over again, but this time but this time towards his mortality, his love towards a girl he can no longer have and his decaying body — his hair loss and the bloating from the chemotherapy. Ben said everyone in New York would tell him how he looked fabulous when he was thin, not knowing he was dying.

"Because the parts about cancer can be quite graphic; we've actually had people pass out or vomit on themselves before," Stenhouse said. "And Max would go and make sure they were alright. There is a connection that is formed there."

The music style was reminiscent of the emotional songwriting in "Hadestown." The genres varied as Ben's maturity progressed, which made the experience immersive. For example, after his father's death, he didn't pick up his father's acoustic guitar. He went for the electric guitar instead. He wanted to "make noise," as any moody teenager would.

Stenhouse said something that makes the musical special is a sense of intimacy and closeness established between Alexander-Taylor and the audience. There isn't a fourth wall filtering the experience as the concept of the play is Ben telling the audience directly about his struggles and victories.

"People relate to the story in so many different ways," Stenhouse said. "We've found it has a universal appeal. The songs are so beautifully written. It is very accessible."

"The Lion" tells a lesson on overcoming challenges, and the people involved in the production had to overcome some themselves. Alexander-Taylor had to get out of his comfort zone in preparation for his role as Ben.

"I got the gig just before the pandemic broke out," he said. "So, we kind of had two years to practice the guitar. The guitar is so difficult, so I really needed those two years."

While there isn't an age limit, the descriptions of cancer may not be suitable for young children. Stenhouse said it is up to parental discretion if they want to bring their children.

Through ups and downs, Ben eventually learns what it means to be a lion. With Alexander-Taylor's voice and heart along with Scheuer's story, the audience is in for a heart-tugging story about love, family, grief, identity and music.

At the end of Alexander-Taylor's performance on opening night, the Tucson audience broke into cheers and he received a standing ovation.

Bianca Morales is TucsonSentinel.com’s Cultural Expression and Community Values reporter, and a Report for America corps member supported by readers like you.

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