Light Years celebrates the cornerstone to all human relationships, the first and most defining: child and parent.
In this case, the focus is Robbie Schaefer and his father Konnie (Bobby Smith). Konnie is a successful economist who left his home in Romania after World War II for Cyprus and then Israel and then finally to America. In 1970, he’s living in Silver Spring, MD with his young, imaginative, and curious “boychik,” a budding musician given to banging pots and pans. An act of which Konnie is none too fond.
But he loves Robbie. They fish. They play hide and seek. They star-gaze. Yet, like all families, they push and pull at each other. Growing together and apart and together. Always trying to understand how the other ticks. It is particularly hard for Robbie to understand his father, who—while a prolific storyteller—doesn’t seem to tell childhood stories that really define him.
As Robbie goes from child to teen to a father himself—living abroad and travelling the world as a professional musician—he begins to see Konnie’s ticks as tells about his early life. And we get to go along on this journey, which unfolds a bit like a folk-rock opera. A bit like a play. A bit like a musical. A bit like a concert. But, mostly, a poem. An epic one with Konnie standing at the center as the hero who not only finds home, but also shows his son the way.
Robbie Schaefer—a well-known local musician from the indie band Eddie From Ohio— has written his father a melodic, moving tribute that will tear you up. Somewhere between the songs “21 Thousand Years” and “Lullabye” a succession of sniffling rippled through the audience. Schaefer shares his role with John Sygar and Luke Smith as his younger selves. Sygar, surely a teen now, seems swaddled in wide-eyed and innocence, performing with childish delight.
“Dad, do you remember the last day before you turned into a grown-up?” young Robbie asks with the clipped cadence of a kid not yet burdened by adult knowing.
Smith is funny, a tad snarky, and even a bit broody as the middle Robbie, encompassing the teen to husband years, when he calls dementia, which has seized an aged Konnie, “the world’s slowest kidnapping.” Both Sygar and Smith play guitar and have excellent voices, breathing thoughtful energy into lovely songs such as “A Joyful Noise” and “Constellations.” Natascia Diaz and Kara-Tameika Watkins back them at every turn, literally performing as if they are back-up singers, and step into minor character roles, including figments of Robbie deaf ear (try to work that one out on your own).
But the show is Bobby Smith’s. He is all warmth and grace as Konnie, and his presence gives shape to a doting father. A man who cracks himself up. Who succeeds because he has already survived. Smith can not only find the heart of each scene in a snap, but project it to the heavens.
Schaefer’s first foray into musical theatre shows his newness to the genre in small ways—and when I say small, I mean about the size of a grain of salt. Like the central conflict, which asks you to believe that Robbie’s choice to be a musician strains his relationship with Konnie, feeling forced. I wholeheartedly trust this did happen and cause friction, but even before Young Robbie and Konnie sing “Hide & Seek,” a song about protecting those you love, you know Konnie will accept his son—and his choices— unconditionally.
closes March 4, 2018
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But Schaefer’s Light Years hits mostly high notes, from moving songs with Americana undertones (right up my favorite alley) to the subtle way it nudges you to see into Konnie’s past. Each scene, and song, is a snapshot that stitches together a sprawling mural, more than a linear story, of Konnie and Robbie’s relationship. I love that. Schaefer also has a keen way with words, showing his skill in song, dialogue, and narration, and a great ability to wax philosophical without leaving you behind.
You won’t walk out of Light Years a changed person, but you will feel the need to cherish your parents, and those you love. To share your life, remembering that it is bigger than you. Because Light Years proves storytelling is a form of memory. An essential thread running through families as necessary to their past, present, and future as blood.
A luminous ode to family, love, and the human spirit, seeing Light Years is a must.
Light Years . Book, Music, and Lyrics by Robbie Schaefer. Directed by Eric Schaeffer. Music Direction by David Holcenberg. Choreography by Kelly Crandall D’Amboise. Featuring Natascia Diaz, Robbie Schaefer, Bobby Smith, Luke Smith, John Sygar, and Kara-Tameika Watkins. Production: Eric Schaefer, Scenic Design; Kathleen Geldard, Costume Design; Chris Lee, Lighting Design; Ryan Hickey, Sound Design; Mark Costello and Zachary G. Borovay, Video Designers; Robbie Schaefer and David Holcenberg, Arrangements and Orchestrations; Kara-Tameika Watkinds, Dance Captain; Bekah Wachenfeld, Assistant Stage Manager; Michael Windsor, Associate Director; and Mark Metzger, Assistant Director. Muscians: Sarah Foard, Violin; Doug Lawler, Keyboards; and Paul Keesling, Drums. Stage Managed by Kerry Epstein. Reviewed by Kelly McCorkendale.