Schaeffer’s Signature act

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ARLINGTON, Va. — Eric Schaeffer, a.d. of Signature Theater and outrageously busy freelancer, is clearly in his element right now. Perhaps his next show should be titled “See Eric Run.”

Schaeffer begins this week as a guest on ABC’s “Good Morning America,” where he will lead an on-air casting call to fill the role of Barbie in the upcoming “Barbie Live in Fairytopia.” He will stage the Mattel-Clear Channel Entertainment co-production, which launches an 80-city tour beginning next spring in Columbus, Ohio.

Schaeffer will head the creative team for the one-hour show, inspired by Mattel’s March direct-to-DVD movie “Barbie Fairytopia” and five other films from the Barbie Entertainment division. Others on the team include writer and co-lyricist Susan DeLallo, composer Robbie Roth, costumer Gregg Barnes and choreographer Christopher D’Amboise.

Meanwhile, Schaeffer is putting the finishing touches on “Nevermore,” a new musical about the life of poet Edgar Allen Poe that debuts at Signature in January. He will direct the show written by Grace Barnes (“Zander’s Boat”) with music by Matt Conner. He describes it as a “sensual ride” that is “a cross between ‘Cirque du Soleil’ and a musical.”

Also next spring, Schaeffer will direct the Kennedy Center’s production of the musical “Mame,” slated for five weeks at the center’s Eisenhower Theater, starring Christine Baranski. He has recently cast Harriet Harris in the role of Vera Charles and will soon fill the part of young Patrick. Emily Skinner and Max Von Essen are also signed.

The burst of activity comes on the heels of the 43-year-old director’s latest collaboration with Kathie Lee Gifford, a new musical called “Saving Aimee” about evangelist Aimee Semple McPherson. It had an eight-perf shakedown at the White Plains Performing Arts Center in New York state earlier this fall, featuring Carolee Carmello. Schaeffer says he is eagerly awaiting that venture’s next chapter.

No, that’s not all. Schaeffer says he’s involved in yet another freelance directorial project that is currently under wraps. His phone must never stop ringing.

Actually, it’s been ringing for 17 years, ever since a kid from tiny Fleetwood, Pa., launched a professional theater here with a friend, moonlighting from his job as art director at a local TV station. He brought with him an interest in musicals, especially dark and challenging musicals a la Stephen Sondheim. Performing out of a converted auto body shop, Schaeffer has since mounted every Sondheim musical and become a close friend of the composer’s.

Signature Theater’s popularity grew so fast that Schaeffer quit his day job to devote full attention to the facility and other opportunities. They included an invitation by John Kander and Fred Ebb to launch their 1998 musical, “Over and Over,” and groom it for Broadway. Cameron Mackintosh invited him to stage his acerbic political musical “The Fix,” one of several projects the producer had in store. More recently, he has directed the Los Angeles production of Disney’s “Snow White” and Gifford’s Off Broadway musical “Under the Bridge.”

D.C. wags have long speculated that Schaeffer would eventually succumb to the big time, but Schaeffer is having none of it. “I’m not going anywhere,” he says emphatically. “I have the best of both worlds right here.”

One of those worlds will improve dramatically next summer when Signature moves into a gleaming new building in nearby Shirlington that will house two theaters. Schaeffer heads the project along with managing director Sam Sweet, including a $7 million fund-raising effort. Its first production: Sondheim’s “Into the Woods.”

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