Pop songwriters, from Elton John to Sheryl Crow to Duncan Sheik, have found success in musical theater in part because they understand how to craft a catchy tune. Robbie Schaefer could stand to take some lessons from those composers should he attempt to craft another musical. Light Years, the Eddie From Ohio frontman’s biographical show about his relationship with his late father features a cast of dependable singers and actors, but its book and lyrics lack depth, descending too often into repetitious ya-ya-ya-ing and striking the same emotional note ad nauseam.
Young Robbie (a stand-out John Sygar) bangs pots and pans to channel his musical aspirations and describes his relatively happy childhood spent in India, Switzerland, and the U.S. His father Konnie (Bobby Smith) is a Jewish immigrant, a hard-working businessman who occasionally supports his son’s artistic sensibilities, but more often wishes the boy would grow up and get to work. When 20-something Robbie (Luke Smith) does grow up, he continues to strum his guitar, this time as a professional musician, while also marrying Annie (Natascia Diaz) and raising children. Predictably, married life puts a strain on Robbie’s musical career and he’s conflicted. Later, when Robbie (now played by real-life Robbie) ages further, Konnie suffers from dementia and Robbie discovers a shocking, secret part of his father’s past, which doesn’t feel at all surprising, though it’s staged as a dramatic reveal. After Konnie’s death, Robbie again relies on music to find his way out of depression.
The act of channeling life’s griefs and injustices into a piece of art is admirable, and Schaefer deserves some praise for doing just that. But in order to hold an audience captive, the whole production needs to be ratcheted up and re-worked to create more tension and explore deeper emotions. In its current form, the show plays like a book report set to song: a high-level summary of ordinary events told via on-the-nose lyrics and run-of-the-mill music.
The most compelling moment of the show is just that, a moment powered by its brevity and its show-don’t-tell quality. Robbie’s real-life, dementia-stricken dad appears on a half-dozen television screens behind the actors in footage that bears all the imperfection and nostalgia of a spontaneously shot home movie. Robbie flanks his frail father at a piano, a note is struck, and father lays head on son’s shoulder. More moments like this could lay the foundation for a great production.
At Signature Theatre to March 44200 Campbell Ave., Arlington. $40–$65. (703) 820-9771. sigtheatre.org.