From left, John Sygar, Kara-Tameika Watkins, Robbie Schaefer, Natascia Diaz and Luke Smith perform in “Light Years” at Signature Theatre. (Christopher Mueller/Christopher Mueller)
Theater critic

Sincerity is an undervalued virtue. But as the most prominent characteristic of a musical, it leaves something to be desired.

The world premiere of “Light Years,” the sweet-tempered autobiographical show at Signature Theatre by singer-songwriter Robbie Schaefer, is a case in point. A piece closer in design to cabaret evening than book musical, it owes debts to both “Fun Home” and “Passing Strange.” Still, unlike those coming-of-age musicals by, respectively, Jeanine Tesori and Lisa Kron, and Stew and Heidi Rodewald, “Light Years” tiptoes so lightly around its subject that its imprint is not so much lasting as negligible.

That subject is the relationship of the central character, a musician named Robbie (played in “Fun Home” fashion by three actors at varying ages) and his father, Konnie (Bobby Smith), a Holocaust survivor who raises a family in Maryland, Virginia, India and Switzerland. He’s a gentle, loving dad prone to keeping the tragic details of his childhood to himself and, like every protective parent, to expressing doubts about the choice his artist-son makes to pursue the uncertain life of an entertainer.

With its folk-rock score, composed in the key of James Taylor by Schaefer and played by him and the other actors on guitars and a trio of onstage instrumentalists on violin, keyboard and drums, “Light Years” reminds you of any number of nights of easy listenin’ you might have wiled away in a coffee house or bar. Schaefer, of the folk band Eddie From Ohio, plays grown-up Robbie, who narrates and, along with John Sygar and Luke Smith embodying Young Robbie and Middle Robbie, reveals what feels like a rather random selection of details from Robbie’s life with and without his father. 

One of the odder, undeveloped sequences takes place in a hospital, where Middle Robbie is having some kind of ear trouble that he insists he doesn’t want corrected. He hears voices: inexplicably, those of Natascia Diaz and Kara-Tameika Watkins, fine actresses, both underutilized. And despite his father’s pleas, he refuses surgery so as not to inhibit them. Presumably, the voices drive the creative process that will fuel his career as a touring musician, but the notion is dropped as abruptly as it is introduced.

Director Eric Schaeffer (no relation to the composer), stages the show concert-style in Signature’s main space, the Max, with visual embellishments and chronological details beamed to us on the dozen video screens of the basic set Schaeffer has also designed. The six actors exhibit a collective affability, and their polished vocal integration enriches the production’s 15 songs, which build to the story of Konnie’s inevitable decline and confession of the haunted past on which he’s never wanted to dwell.


Kara-Tameika Watkins and Natascia Diaz flank Luke Smith as Young Robbie, center, and Bobby Smith as Konnie in “Light Years.” (Christopher Mueller/Christopher Mueller)

Schaefer is a genial and gratifyingly humble host for this night of minimal drama, one that might feel a bit more consequential in less formal theatrical surroundings. Perhaps the optimal way to experience “Light Years” might be through the privacy of your own headphones.

Light Years, book, music and lyrics by Robbie Schaefer. Directed and set designed by Eric Schaeffer. Music direction, David Holcenberg; choreography, Kelly Crandall d’Amboise; costumes, Kathleen Geldard; lighting, Chris Lee; sound, Ryan Hickey; videos, Mark Costello and Zachary G. Borovay; production stage manager, Kerry Epstein. With Sarah Foard, Doug Lawler, Paul Keesling. About 90 minutes. $40-$94. Through March 4 at Signature Theatre, 4200 Campbell Ave., Arlington. Visit sigtheatre.org or call 703-820-9771.