By Gwen Rice, Special to OnMilwaukee   Published Feb 14, 2020 at 6:01 PM

Artistic Director Michael Unger unveiled the Skylight Music Theatre’s 2020-21 five-play season – complete with one "add-on" performance – to an enthusiastic crowd of 200 supporters earlier this week. The official announcement was made in a special presentation in the organization’s home, the Cabot Theatre at the Broadway Theatre Center.

At the helm of the company since September, this marks Unger’s inaugural season as artistic director. 

"All of these titles are dynamic, engaging stories, filled with fascinating, passionate protagonists," he said. "Skylight’s mission is to present the full spectrum of music theater, and next season does just that. It simultaneously looks back towards Skylight’s beginnings while also looking towards Skylight’s future." 

The upcoming season kicks off with "The Hunchback Of Notre Dame" in September. Adapted from the novel by Victor Hugo, this musical version of the romantic tale of love, lust and obsession was written by Dennis DeYoung, lead singer/songwriter of the legendary rock band Styx. 

"It’s a show that I love," Unger explained. "If you think of the Styx videos from back in the day, Dennis has always been very theatrical. He actually played Pontius Pilate in a touring production of 'Jesus Christ Superstar' that I saw 30 years ago. I think that experience may have inspired him to write in the musical theater genre. And in many ways, his work is very similar to the big musicals of the ’80s from Andrew Lloyd Webber, Tim Rice, and Claude-Michel Schöenberg, Alain Boublil, Jean-Marc Natel and Richard Maltby, Jr. (the team who wrote 'Les Miserables' and 'Miss Saigon')."

"He writes the same kind of pop, power ballad, rock music that fits with epic musicals." Unger continued. "The score is stunning. And he’s done a great job with the book. It’s much more faithful to Hugo than the Disney version. It really delves into the dark characters and the damage done by their own hypocrisy."

Next comes an encore to "Annie" and last season’s "Newsies": "Oliver!", the third in a trio of urchin-based musicals presented for the holidays. Opening in November, "Oliver!" will make its Skylight debut, featuring a huge cast – including dozens of local young people playing orphans and Fagin’s rag-tag band of pickpockets. Based on the Dickens novel "Oliver Twist," the musical features iconic songs such as "Food, Glorious Food," "Where is Love?" and "Consider Yourself." 

In January 2021, a team of local writers will bring a famed German piece home to Milwaukee with "Fledermaus MKE." Similar to the inventive production of Gilbert and Sullivan’s "Ruddigore" that delighted Skylight audiences this past January, the company will apply a non-traditional approach the classic operetta "Die Fledermaus" by Johann Strauss II, Karl Haffner and Richard Genée. Skylight’s version will be in English and set in modern-day Milwaukee.

The original plot’s mistaken identities and practical jokes will remain, but the adaptation will (presumably) exchange champagne for beer and waltzes for polkas, alongside references to cheese curds, the Packers and epic snowstorms that characterize the dairy state. Milwaukee Opera Theatre’s Producing Artistic Director Jill Anna Ponasik will direct, with choreography from Milwaukee Ballet Artistic Director Michael Pink.

"I am very impressed with Jill Anna’s work here at Skylight this season with her inventive re-imaginings of ‘Oklahoma!’ and ‘Ruddigore,' and Michael Pink’s work with his world-class ballet company here is just spectacular," said Unger on the quirky take on the 19th century piece.

In February 2021, Skylight will present the regional premiere of "Ernest Shackleton Loves Me" by Joe DiPietro, Brendan Milburn and Valerie Vigoda. The 2017 Off-Broadway hit crisscrosses continents and time, featuring a love story between a modern single mom, who is a composer, and an early 20th century Irish explorer who led several expeditions to Antarctica. The unlikely romance features modern music and video of Shackleton’s actual journey on the doomed ship, The Endurance. From the author of "I Love You, You’re Perfect, Now Change," and "Memphis," this is a challenging, quirky piece for two actors who also play their own instruments: the violin and banjo.

In discussing the unusual piece, Unger could barely contain his excitement.

"I love this show so much," he beamed. "I was looking for a small cast musical that didn’t compromise on theatricality, so this was a perfect choice. And musically it’s very original. The score includes everything from sea shanties and Irish jigs, to rock.

"I know the author/composer and saw a production of the show in New Jersey, before it transferred to Off-Broadway. It’s a very funny show that takes a fascinating look at similarities between explorers and artists and sacrifices they make." 

Skylight will round out its regular season with "The Full Monty" in April and May next year. Based on the 1997 film, the musical version by Terrence McNally and David Yazbek has been equally popular, presenting a group of unemployed, blue collar workers who put together a Chippendales-type act to earn some money for their families. Much humor and many clever songs lead up to a big reveal in the final moment of the show.

"This show centers on salt-of-the-earth, good people, who have been forced into challenging circumstances," Unger said. "There were actually a lot of similarities between Buffalo, New York and Milwaukee in days past, as manufacturing declined. I think audiences here will have a lot of fun and really be able to relate to the show."

As a special "add-on" to season subscriptions, Skylight patrons can also buy tickets to a reimagined version of "Spring Awakening" in March of 2021. The Tony-winning musical by Steven Sater and Duncan Sheik, based on a play by Frank Wedekind, was notably revived by Deaf West Theatre in 2015 using both deaf and hearing actors. Unger, who has previously worked with Deaf West, will direct this modern re-telling of teen angst and sexual awakening in the 19th century, also using both deaf and hearing performers. 

Reaching out through interpreters for the hearing impaired who regularly translate area performances into American Sign Language (ASL), Unger is not worried about finding deaf cast members in the Milwaukee area.

"My goal here is to integrate sign into the choreography and the text, to make the experience for hearing and deaf people similarly affecting," he noted. "In a play that really begs adults to listen to the younger generation, there’s an extra added layer of meaning when you also consider the struggle of deaf people who were historically forced into the oral tradition instead of being able to communicate in their own language, in ASL."

Asked for any further comments, Unger simply stated, "Come check out the shows. It’s going to be a great season." 

I couldn’t agree more.