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A CurtainUp DC Review
Light Years

"Dad, do you remember the last day before you turned into a grownup?" — Young Robbie to his father.
light years
Kara-Tamieka Watkins, Natascia Diaz, Luke Smith and Bobby Smith (Photo by Christopher Mueller)
There's something very endearing about Robbie Schaefer whose Light Years is currently premiering at Signature Theatre. Not his jug ears, nor his bald head but his continuous smile sets the tone in the 90-minute musical for which he wrote the book, music and lyrics.

Musical is perhaps too strong a word to describe the show. It's really a concert with a through line of Schaefer's autobiography, particularly as it pertains to his loving relationship with his father, Konnie, given a convincing performance by Bobby Smith. Most prominent in Robbie's life is music. John Sygar as teenaged Young Robbie gives a performance that hits just the right balance between annoying (banging on saucepans to make a lot of noise even after his father asks him to stop) and loveable (playing guitar and singing). Even in an ensemble piece such as this, his performance stands out.

Luke Smith is Robbie at the post-adolescent, pre-adult stage. But boy meets guitar and he knows what he wants to do with his life, he wants to be a musician. To his father's chagrin he also wishes to remain blissfully oblivious to such realities as making a decent living, being able to pay the rent and as Konnie points out, stand on his own two feet. So Robbie goes on the road with Eddie from Ohio, a folk/rock band that has played together — often around Washington — since 1991.

While playing in Geneva, Switzerland, Middle Robbie meets his future wife Annie, the tempting Natascia Diaz who always makes the most of whatever part she plays; in this case a small one. The couple have three sons and Annie gripes that Robbie, the itinerant guitar playing song writer is always on the road.

At every stage of his life, Robbie questions what is going on around him, particularly as his father who is an economist is stationed far afield in India and Switzerland. Always by Robbie's side is Konnie, a Holocaust survivor, given a loving portrait by Bobby Smith. Konnie's childhood, marked by sorrow, differs greatly from Robbie's which is probably what makes Konnie such a good and attentive father. When Robbie wants to show his father his knowledge of the constellations, about which Konnie knows very little, it is the son who is the teacher. It is also where the title comes from.

Bobby Smith's Konnie tells corny jokes which he expresses in an American Jewish accent. But as his mind fades Robbie describes his father's dementia as "a gradual kidnapping."

Where Light Years falters is in Konnie's overly long exposition of life in a concentration camp in his native Germany, with translations on rear screen projections that were used to give dates and places earlier in the show. Not to diminish the gravity of Konnie's plight, the telling of the migratory path he had to take in order to get to the United States, goes on and on and on. The Three onstage musicians, three Robbies, the singers and Director David Holcenberg' try to restore momentum with upbeat numbers but it is hard to bounce back.

Robbie's encore "Hallelluljah" helps. With judicious cuts, Light Years could have a bright future. Signature's Artistic Director Eric Schaefer(no relation to Bobbie Schaefer) who directed and designed the scenery with some artful touches, such as having Konnie's gestures repeated by his son. The set is simple, the video designs by Mark Costello and Zachary G. Borovay and lighting by Chris Lee are effective.

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Light Years
Book, Music and Lyrics by Robbie Schaefer
Directed by Eric Schaefer
Scenic Design by Eric Schaefer
Lighting Design by Chris Lee
Cast: Bobby Smith (Konnie); Robbie Schaefer (Robbie); John Sygar (Young Robbie); Luke Smith (Middle Robbie); Natascia Diaz (Chantelle/Annie); Kara-Tameika Watkins (Soma/Amelia and Dance Captain).
Musicians: Sarah Foard (violin); Doug Lawler (keyboards); Paul Keesling (drums).
Running time: 90 minutes, no intermission.
Signature Theatre, Signature,
February 6 through March 4, 2018. Reviewed by Susan Davidson at February 14, 2018 performance.

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