Review: ‘Light Years’ at Signature Theatre

How does someone pay honor to a deceased parent whom they loved dearly? How does a son give thanks to his father? And when does a son really come to learn what a father went through, in those many years way before the son was even born?

In a gentle, sweet retelling of his relationship with his own Dad, singer-songwriter Robbie Schaefer does all this through music, with an autobiographical connected song cycle with a recognizable arc. The music has lovely guitar-driven melodies, and voices from six characters that bring a most gratifying evening. Light Years as a production is both an indie-folk music concert and a theatrical production.

Robbie Schaefer in Light Years. Photo by Christopher Mueller.

Robbie Schaefer in Light Years. Photo by Christopher Mueller.

Light Years has a cast of six and a small band of three with music direction by David Holcenberg. The cast features Bobby Smith (as Dad Konnie), Natascia Diaz (Annie/Chantelle), Luke Smith (Middle Robbie), John Sygar (Young Robbie), Kara-Tameika Watkins (Amelia/Soma) and Robbie Schaefer (as Robbie himself). The production is directed by Signature’s Eric Schaeffer who is also the scenic designer.

So who is Robbie Schaefer and why should an audience be interested in his idiosyncratic musical autobiography? Schaefer is likely well known to those in the local indie-folk music scene. ( he has a James Taylor or Tom Rush style for Boomers reading this). He is the guitarist and songwriter for the band, Eddie From Ohio.

I suspect that for the many Boomers in the audience at the performance I attended the band Eddie from Ohio is likely unknown. But, after Signature’s quality production of Light Years, they will come to know Robbie Schaefer as the loving son who did right by his Dad. He is a son who developed this public, emotional tribute to his Dad.

Robbie Schaefer. Photo by Christopher Mueller.

Robbie Schaefer. Photo by Christopher Mueller.

So, what is Light Years exactly? It is the musicalized story of a father (Konnie) and son’s devotion to each other as they journey through life and travel around the world and America, together and separately, in current times and through flash-backs the past. As in any normal parental relationship, there are times when neither understands or appreciates the other.

The show allows the audience to know Robbie as a young boy with hearing issues (“Deaf My Sweet Ass” is a theatrical show stopper), who takes to music as a way to express himself. We later get to know Robbie as a husband. Along the way, the audience becomes more knowledgeable about Dad Konnies’s mysterious past. One of Light Years‘ most poignant moments comes through the song “Hide and Seek” when questions are asked such as: “Dad, have you ever been to war?”

Dad Konnie only answers these questions later in the production, when his mind is racked with dementia, and the answers are chilling; leaving me quietly trying to take it all in, knowing it is true for more than Konnie. Konnie’s answers also hint at the effects of living through the Holocaust or the Cambodian Killing Fields or mass murders of school students – to name just a few events.

Bobby Smith as Robbie Schaefer’s Dad Konnie is a pleasure to watch. Smith is such a dependable performer at Signature productions. He is such a protean actor and singer. To step into another world, Smith is one of what every organization needs to survive and thrive: that individual who will be there to give his best to matter what; the person who is the heart of an organization’s success.

Young Robbie (John Sygar) and Middle Robbie (Luke Smith) give life to their parts through scenes and songs about fishing and looking into the night sky (“Constellations,” “ 21 Thousand Years”). Natascia Diaz is Annie who meets Middle Robbie in the songs “Cute” and “After All.” She adds a dose of reality as a wife who lets her husband know she is lonely and feels forsaken in the musical number “Happy.” It is a scene to drink in. I suspect many a husband, wife or partner may recognize elements from their own life.

Some things in the production befuddled me. The lack of raised voices is one. The invisibility of Robbie’s mom as a person in his life is another. And there is thread about a sinking ship full of redwood that was an interesting opening, got lost, then reappeared.

Kara-Tameika Watkins, Natascia Diaz, Luke Smith, and Bobby Smith. Photo by Christopher Mueller.

Kara-Tameika Watkins, Natascia Diaz, Luke Smith, and Bobby Smith. Photo by Christopher Mueller.

The small band comprised of Sarah Foard (violin), Doug Lander (keyboards) and Paul Keesling (drums) was a well-tuned group. While the overall musical scheme is understandably guitar-driven (all the Robbie’s can play guitar), I would have enjoyed orchestration to highlight Foard’s violin and increase the number of organ riffs from Lander to add additional aural interest. They are really fine musicians. Why waste what you have by keeping them always in the background.

There was plenty of dash in the singing harmonies of the duo of Natascia Diaz and Kara Tameika Watkins with choreographed movement by Kelly Crandall d’Amboise that sparkled.

Kudos to creative team video designers Mark Costello and Zachary G. Borovay. With about a dozen screens at the rear of the set, there was regular visual interest beyond the actors to give a sense of place and time.

Light Years is a very personal musical about one particular father and son’s journey. It is just right for anyone interested in an appealing musical journey into a Father-Son relationship that is not bombastic, or snarky. You will not leave Signature humming a tune, or remembering a specific lyric, but you will remember that fathers and sons can love each other, even if they don’t hug or show outward signs of their devotion, until perhaps too late. And as the play concludes with the songs “Remembering Me,” and “Evergreen,” the title Light Years will be made clear.

Running Time: About 90 minutes with no intermission.

Light Years plays through March 4, 2018, at Signature Theatre – 4200 Campbell Avenue, in Arlington, VA. For tickets, call the box office at (703) 820-9771, or purchase them online.

Light Years Musical Numbers:
“Burst the Silence”
“A Joyful Noise”
“Hide and Seek”
“Can You Hear Me Now?”
“Deaf My Sweet Ass”
“Constellations”
“Sounds Like Home”
“Stupid American”
“After All”
“Happy”
“21 Thousand Years”
“Lullaby”
“He is Gone”
“Remember Me”
“Evergreen”

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