By Daniel Skora
In April of 1992, Christopher McCandless, a twenty-four year old college graduate headed out to the Alaskan wilderness with little more than a backpack, a .22 caliber rifle, a minimal supply of food, and the high hopes that idealism often bestows with great abundance upon those with adventurous souls. Though better prepared than most who might wish to undertake similar dangerous and often ill-thought-out adventures, his time in the wild was short. The scribblings he left behind in the pages of the books he carried with him became a kind of makeshift diary, and the last day he referenced was his 113th. Barely two months later, his decomposed body was discovered by moose hunters. It is believed that Christopher McCandless died of malnutrition.
“Into the Wild”, a musical interpretation of McCandless’s story, is currently being presented at The Encore Musical Theatre in what’s being billed as a developmental premiere. The show is based on a book by Jon Krakauer, who became intrigued with the young man after writing an article about his life and death for Outside Magazine. Krakauer is an established author and adventurer in his own right, already having one bestselling “Into” book to his credit, the widely respected “Into Thin Air”. That book details the ill-fated 1996 attempt of several groups of climbers to scale Mt. Everest. As a member of one of the groups, Krakauer had intimate knowledge of the bad weather and poor decisions that contributed to the death of eight climbers.
Those who have read “Into the Wild” will find the musical an honest representation of McCandless’s life and what is known about the events that occurred when he was alone in the wilderness. Act 1 gives background on McCandless (Conor Ryan) who, among a host of other eccentricities, like burning all of his money on his way to the Alaskan frontier, disavowed his given name and took to calling himself Alexander Supertramp. We are introduced to others who were either important in his life or happened to cross his path on his journey. We meet his parents, Walt (Greg Bailey) and Billie (Sarah Briggs), whose aspirations for their son’s future couldn’t have been more different than what the young man had in mind for his own. In flashbacks, we meet McCandless as a young boy (Connor Casey), inquisitive yet not in the same manner as his scientifically-minded father. As he begins his journey, first by car, then hitchhiking when his vehicle breaks down, we meet various characters he encounters along the way: hippies, fellow hitchhikers, and an encounter with a railroad guard who boots him off a freight train. Those numerous roles are played by Daniel A Helmer, Gayle E. Martin, Matthew Pecek, Alexandra Reynolds, and Michael Szymanski.
Act 2 begins with McCandless already entrenched at the place where he will meet his fate. He has taken refuge in an abandoned bus, The Magic Bus as he calls it, which had been used as shelter for a construction crew working on the wilderness trails and was later repurposed by moose hunters. The diary McCandless left behind chronicles some of his experiences in the wild: hunting for food, illness and depression, several attempts to leave, and his final awareness that the meaning of life comes not through efforts at self-realization, but in being of service to others. It would be too much to expect the slow death of a play’s main character to hold everyone’s attention for a whole second act. With that in mind, the show’s creators (music and lyrics by Niko Tsakalakos, book and lyrics by Janet Allard) have reverted to using flashbacks and imaginary re-encounters with some of the characters McCandless met along his way. He even gets to sing a duet with himself as a young boy.
Even though one might expect a show that’s still in development to appear to be unfinished, “Wild” not only has the look and feel of a musical that’s been worked to perfection, it’s also a great piece of theatre. The story is fascinating and McCandless’s life gives cause for reflection. Conor Ryan is brilliant as both actor and singer. The songs are fresh and exciting with contemporary rhythms and catchy lyrics and Ryan’s vocals make them soar. The show also boasts a superb supporting cast. The set is marvelously representative of the Alaskan wilderness and has a life of its own, with layers of flats mimicking the landscape and video projections contributing everything from snow to storms to floods.
“Into the Wild” is nicely wrought and sure to be enjoyed. If there’s one area of the musical that could use a little more developing, it’s the drawn out and overly melodramatic second act. The musical is directed by Mia Walker. Set and projection design are by Stephanie Busing, with costume design by Jenna Brand. Music is supplied by a six-piece band headed by conductor/pianist Tyler Driskill. Lighting is by Robert Perry and sound design and engineering by Chris Goosman and Terry Williams. The show runs through May 7th. Tickets are available by calling 1.734.268.6200 or going online at www.theencoretheatre.org/tickets. Encore Musical Theatre is located at 3126 Broad Street in the historic village of Dexter. If you’re coming west down I-96, exit at Baker Street.