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Music Maps a Life in Light Years

Signature Theatre lights up the MAX Theatre with folk rock music.

John Sygar, Kara-Tameika Watkins, Robbie Schaefer, Natascia Diaz, and Luke Smith in a scene from Light Years, directed by Eric Schaeffer, at Signature Theatre.
(© Christopher Muelle)

Musician Robbie Schaefer must be a happy man. You can tell it from the sound of his indie folk rock music. You can hear it in the lyrics he composes to accompany that music. And you can feel it in the overall architecture of Light Years, Schaefer's dynamic musical receiving its world premiere at Signature Theatre.

The story of his own life, Light Years explores Schaefer's journey from the time he was a toddler until he is a grown man and an expert guitarist. In particular, the musical traces Schaefer's relationship with his father, Konnie, a Holocaust survivor who came to the United States on a smelly ship and learned to love America.

The musical begins when Schaefer is very young and content making noise with wooden spoons and cooking pots, which drives his father crazy. Later in life, Schaefer desperately wants a guitar but his father refuses — until he finally gives in. When Schaefer insists that he wants to be an artist and do nothing but play music, his realistic father — who wants his son to do something useful — is shocked. But again, he gives in. This process of father and son clashing on issue after issue makes up the basic plot line of the play. Throughout the musical, it seems that Konnie always values his son's desires above his own and puts Robbie's wishes before his.

Schaefer plays himself in the musical and thus gives the role tremendous personal energy. It's hard to imagine anyone better depicting the love, tenderness, and kindness that Schaefer expresses toward his father than Schaefer himself. His character is strong and distinctive, yet he has created a universal story through his songs. Bobby Smith is brilliant as Konnie. Smith simultaneously mines the humor and the pathos in the role, depicting Konnie as a man who carries the weight of the world on his shoulders, but who can also laugh hysterically at a dumb joke.

One of the most effective elements of Light Years is that it incorporates four actors into the band, which otherwise consists of three musicians, led expertly by Schaefer and David Holcenberg. Young Robbie, who gets to know his father by fishing with him, is played beautifully by John Sygar, who peppers his father with endless questions, but never lets his character become too annoying. Sygar then blends back into the band as a guitarist. Middle Robbie, as a young man, is performed with great grace and ease by Luke Smith, who is also a guitarist during the rest of the show.

Natascia Diaz and Kara-Tameika Watkins appear first as singers with the band. Then Diaz becomes the ebullient, loving girlfriend Annie, who charms Schaefer right off his bandstand. The two fall in love, marry, and have three children. Watkins becomes Amelia, a woman who buys Schaefer's guitar when times are hard.

Time and space telescope in Light Years. The story is told in Israel, where Konnie was raised, and travels through India, Maryland, and Virginia. It continues through Schaefer's life. Director Eric Schaeffer keeps the musical running at a quick pace, with an eye not only to the serious questions it asks, but also to its offbeat humor. As scenic designer, Schaeffer puts the band together on raised platforms, with rectangular panels behind them, which help tell the story of the family's peripatetic life (video design by Mark Costello and Zachary Borovay). Kathleen Geldard keeps the cast in modern dress with pops of color when character-appropriate.

Through his memories of growing up and learning to understand his father's difficult life, Robbie Schaefer offers a view of what it means to create a home, make a career, and really know a parent. It is a touching story, glorified with marvelous music and humor, and offers a precisely detailed portrait of how one father and son successfully bonded.