- - Friday, August 16, 2013

Eric Schaeffer, artistic director and co-founder of Signature Theatre, has built what he launched 24 years ago as a community theater into a major venue for classic musicals, imaginative dramas and intimate cabarets. Along the way, he has earned multiple honors, among them six Helen Hayes Awards for outstanding direction, six Helen Hayes Awards for outstanding musical, and an honorary doctorate/humane letters from his alma mater, Kutztown University. His artists have been honored with 320 Helen Hayes Awards nominations and 82 wins. The theater itself received the 2009 Tony Award for regional theater.

Signature’s 2013-14 season opens with the blockbuster musical “Miss Saigon” by Claude-Michel Schonberg and Alain Boublil, composers of “Les Miserables.” They based it on Puccini’s opera “Madame Butterfly,” the tragic love story about an American officer and a Japanese geisha girl. In their retelling, the setting becomes Saigon in the 1970s during the Vietnam War. The romance between Chris, an American soldier, and Kim, a Vietnamese bar girl, ends with the unexpected evacuation of the city.

“This is a good time to revisit the show because it hasn’t been done in Washington for 15 years and the Vietnam era has passed,” Mr. Schaeffer said in an interview Wednesday with The Washington Times. “There’s a new generation of kids who don’t know anything about it. It was the first war we lost, and people are now curious to look back.

“We haven’t updated it except for the addition of a new song, ‘Maybe,’ sung by Ellen, the American wife of Chris. It’s her soliloquy in the second act when she discovers that Kim is still in love with Chris and she begins to wonder if he is still in love with her. The song has been used in productions in other countries, but this is the first time in this country.”

The outstanding cast is headed by newcomers Diana Huey as Kim, Jason Michael Evans as Chris and Thom Sesma as the Engineer. Among the actors familiar to Washington audiences are Erin Driscoll as Ellen, Chris Sizemore as John and Christopher Mueller as Tuey.

Broadway veteran Sesma (“The Lion King,” “The Times They Are A-Changin,” “Titanic”) is no stranger to “Miss Saigon,” having been a member of the national tour. Mr. Evans appeared in New York productions of “Passion” and “On Your Toes.” His regional theater roles include Lt. Cable in “South Pacific,” Jimmy in “Thoroughly Modern Millie” and John Truitt in “Meet Me in St. Louis.”

“It took me nine months to cast the show because I wouldn’t settle for second best,” Mr. Schaeffer said. “The role of Kim was the hardest to cast because of the vocal demands and my determination to have all the Asian roles played by Asians. Just by luck, my assistant director at Ford’s Theater told me she had a friend in Seattle who answered all my qualifications, so I contacted Diana Huey and asked her to put some stuff on YouTube for me.”

That did the trick. Once the casting was firmed, he focused on developing a truly environmental production with a set that surrounds the theater. The audience will be transported vicariously to Vietnam as it was during the war. Upon arrival, they walk into a veritable jungle filled with parachutes, camouflage and war scenes — a very different world, much as it might have looked to young Americans soldiers.

The impressive set is just one of the many surprises. The creative team has designed costumes, lighting and sound to emulate the time and place. Critical to the total effect are the 15-piece orchestra that backs the singers in their operatic-like numbers and Mr. Schaeffer’s exciting version of the helicopter evacuation that will thrill everyone in the theater.

“The biggest challenge in presenting this musical was just doing it,” he said. “It’s hard to take a show this big and epic in scope and present it in an honest and stunning way. People in this country never see a show that tells about the human connection brought to life in such a gritty and operatic way. To make it happen, the number of people working backstage and in the production amount to more than half those in the audience.”

WHAT: “Miss Saigon,” Tony Award-winning musical by Claude-Michel Schonberg and Alain Boublil, directed by Eric Schaeffer.

WHERE: Signature Max Theatre, 4200 Campbell Ave., Arlington

WHEN: Aug. 15 to Sept. 22

TICKETS: From $40 at Ticketmaster 703/573-SEAT (7328)

WEB: signature-theatre.org