BWW Review: Poignant World Premiere Musical LIGHT YEARS at Signature Theatre
LIGHT YEARS, a world premiere musical at Signature Theatre, is a moving performance with a beautiful score and an introduction to touching and endearing characters ... but it falls short as a great night of theater. I left wanting more. The story was not heightened or complete enough to truly command the stage, although the music itself was full and haunting. LIGHT YEARS is a production of great heart and promise that deserves to continue to evolve. It is exciting to be privy to new work in creation.
LIGHT YEARS is a deeply personal story of son and father attempting to understand each other. The relationship is firmly grounded in love and respect. Yet the two have profoundly different ideas about pursuing artistic passion versus creating a stable and consistent life. Son Robbie, forever a questioner, later fills in the blanks to many unanswered queries about his father's painful past and how these shaped Robbie's own life. LIGHT YEARS takes us through the decades, and from India, to Switzerland, to northern Virginia.
Although this is the first musical theater work of Robbie Schaefer, he is an expert songwriter and performer, honed over 27 years with the band Eddie from Ohio. The autobiographical LIGHT YEARS evolved from cathartic writing following the death of Schaefer's father.
Under the guidance of Signature Theatre Artistic Director Eric Schaeffer (no relation), LIGHT YEARS has progressed through several years of development workshops. The production, which hovers between spare concert reading and musical theater performance, still feels roughly sketched and incomplete. The pacing, focus, and emotional arc needs sharpening. Disappointingly, the characters were not fully rendered. These were people I wanted to know and understand more completely.
The music is the star here-soaring and poignant. The lyrics are richly detailed. The show's opener, Break the Silence, with its theme of coming home, highlights the guitars and rich harmonies of the six-member ensemble, backed by musicians Sarah Foard (violin), Doug Lawler (keyboards), and Paul Keesling (drums). David Holcenberg is musical director. Can You Hear Me Now? is an ongoing letter to the grandparents back home. Constellations shows us the touching realization that Robbie's father, Konnie, doesn't have the answer to everything. In all the 15 musical numbers, the ensemble's voices are strong and sure, working well whether layered with others or on their own.
Schaefer, who wrote the book, music, and lyrics, is the chief storyteller, guiding us through his personal chronicle. As a performer he is sure, earnest, and extremely likeable. In other stages of life Robbie is portrayed by two other actors. John Sygar as Young Robbie is positively effervescent. From his eyes to his fingertips, he gives a charismatic, physical, and energized performance. Middle Robbie, Luke Smith, is more the steady questioner as Robbie enters manhood and struggles with his own life's direction and the decline of his father.
Veteran DC actor Bobby Smith is Robbie's father, Konnie. Smith grounds Konnie with a solid and steady love for his son. He is both warm and wistful as he interacts with Robbie. While Konnie's European roots are significant, Smith's accent was off-putting. In a show that is honest and simple, the accent rings untrue, threatening to render Konnie a caricature.
Natascia Diaz and Kara-Tameika Watkins are the voices inside Robbie's head, Chanelle and Soma, urging Robbie to trust his instincts whether about his health or his art. Diaz's and Watkins' voices weave together beautifully. Watkins also appears as the guitar-loving Amelia. Diaz is Robbie's love, Annie, whom we follow from the moment Robbie spies her at a concert through their marriage and three boys.
The production design is spare and multi-functional. The thrust stage is surrounded by the audience on three sides. LIGHT YEARS director Eric Schaeffer also created the spare and foggy set featuring multi-level platforms, transparent Lucite furniture, and a traditional door. The audience is greeted with guitars and instruments preset-warm woods like glowing sculptures. The guitar is a central motif-almost another family member.
The set integrates a wide grid and lighting design of Chris Lee. Video design by Mark Costello and Zachary G. Borovay is a key element, ranging from home movies, to maps, to projections of time and place. Kathleen Geldard's costume design features easy contemporary pieces. One fun unifying element was the red sneakers worn by all three Robbies. Kelly Crandall d'Amboise choreographed the movement.
The production mixes some conventions of theater with some of indie music. While it is exciting to explore a new hybrid, some elements confused the theatrical pacing. Soon after the audience took their seats, the cast and musicians loosely warmed up on the stage with house lights up, not acknowledging the audience; quickly the lighting shifted and show abruptly began. Near the end of the performance, the story arc resolved and the company bowed for a curtain call; after the applause, the company resumed not for an unplanned encore but for an additional concluding song. Traditional theatrical bookends would have been a more effective choice.
Pushing forward new voices and new explorations of the artform is vital, exciting, and essential. We Washingtonians are lucky to have rich opportunities to see and support artistic work at many stages of evolution. LIGHT YEARS is a moving and captivating work that has great potential. I hope it is given an opportunity to continue to progress.
Robbie Schafer says, "All art worth creating requires an unwavering commitment to risk and vulnerability. Thank goodness there are people like Eric [Schaeffer] and theatres like Signature who are still unabashedly devoted to such things."
Runtime: 90 minutes with no intermission
LIGHT YEARS runs through March 4 with shows Tuesday and Wednesday evenings at 7:30 pm, Thursday through Saturday evenings at 8:00 pm, Sunday evenings at 7:00 pm, with matinees on Saturday and Sunday at 2:00 pm. The production is at Signature Theatre, 4200 Campbell Avenue in Shirlington. For tickets or specific performance times, please visit Signature Theatre's website here. This is a video overview of the production.
Photos by Christopher Mueller. Photos by Christopher Mueller. Top left (L to R): John Sygar, Luke Smith and Robbie Schaefer. Next right: John Sygar, Natascia Diaz, Luke Smith and Robbie Schaefer. Center: Kara-Tameika Watkins, Natascia Diaz, Bobby Smith, John Sygar, Luke Smith and Robbie Schaefer. Center left: John Sygar, Kara-Tameika Watkins, Robbie Schaefer, Natascia Diaz, and Luke Smith. Bottom left: Kara-Tameika Watkins, Natascia Diaz, Luke Smith and Bobby Smith. Bottom center: Robbie Schaefer.