Encore Michigan

‘Into The Wild’: A soulful tragedy brought to astonishing light at Encore Musical Theatre

Review April 15, 2017 David Kiley

DEXTER, Mich.–It’s not a story that lends itself to an elevator pitch to a Broadway producer: It’s a musical based on the story of a young man who starved to death in Alaska.

But that’s exactly what the writers of Into The Wild are hoping for as they workshop the new musical at The Encore Musical Theatre here. The show, written by Niko Tsakalakos (music and lyrics) and Janet Allard (book and lyrics) and directed by Mia Walker, is based on the book and film of the same title.

In April 1992, a young man, a college student, named Christopher Johnson McCandless drove and then hitchhiked across the U.S. on his way to Alaska. The story should be familiar to many by now. He was a rebel with socialist convictions, and rejected all social conventions that were thrust upon him by his parents–his father literally a rocket scientist at NASA. He wanted nothing to do with college that his parents had provided, or the the thought of career or possessions. Indeed, anyone who has read the book can’t imagine McCandless ending up wearing a suit or sitting still very long in an office, or actually having the guile to handle the politics of an institution. He had a severe emotional break with his father at around age ten, and never seemed to be the same kid afterward.

Indeed, when he abandons his college apartment without telling his parents, and gives away his college fund to an organization that fights world hunger, he also considers himself “divorced” from his parents who he feels are dishonest and all too square and conventional for his bohemian sensibilities. And he goes off to find what he is looking for in the Alaskan bush, stripped of money, which he actually burns, along with ditching as many possessions as he can.

Sound like the story for a musical yet? The team of Tsakalakos and Allard have a lot of credits behind them, but not a Broadway show as of yet. Their score for this show is lush and gorgeous as the Alaska wilderness in which much of the story is set. This duo has a knack, at least in this show, of creating true toe-tapping songs. “Alaska,” for example is a song that gets sung by Chris McCandless (Conor Ryan) and “young Chris” (Connor Casey) in Act 1, and reprised by Ryan and Company in the second act. It’s a huge, belty song and Ryan sings like a tank, showing no signs of vocal fatigue on opening night after what was certainly a hellish tech-week. His portrayal of the wide-eyed, yet rebellious McCandless is a piece of perfect casting. The tragic protagonist of the story is a combination of innocence and anger, wide-eyed ignorance and commitment to high ideals. Ryan, a BFA graduate of the University of Michigan, was cast for this project out of New York. He sings with a compelling sense of anguish and wonder at the same time.

There is a creative team on this show that created set, light and sound magic, a miracle, on Encore’s small stage and in the wings in the orchestra. Set Design/Projection Designer Stephanie Busing created a set of layered panels on which animations, photos and video were projected to show everything from maps showing McCandless’s route, to his Alaskan campsite, canyons, mountains, raging rivers. Such layering of images projected, and this level of production value has never been done in Michigan before. Not only does one get the actors surrounded by a canyon, for example, but a canyon with rolling mist. Chris at one point is paddling a canoe for his life, surrounded by rushing water, and it is especially fantastical on the small Encore stage. If the show makes it to bigger stages, it will be something to see what the designers do with a larger canvas. At times, on Encore’s small stage the set has an almost pop-up storybook quality that would look better on a big stage.

Ryan is surrounded mostly by a cast of the ablest actors around Michigan, all of whom have taken previous turns at the Encore: Gayle Martin as Jan, a hippie traveler whose band picks up McCandless, as well as ensemble is stand-out, especially in her songs– “Forgiveness,” and a group song, “Home is The Road.” Sarah Briggs as Chris’s mother, Billie, always brings strong, clarion vocals to her roles and this is no exception. Greg Bailey as Walt McCandless, Chris’s stiff, conventional father who Chis sees as a degenerate liar, is rock solid. And Matthew Pecek is especially strong in multiple ensemble roles, and appears as if he could play the lead some day with his strong vocals and hungry look. Daniel A. Helmer is also very solid in multiple roles.

As lovely as the score is, and as strong as the performances are, the part of the show, not surprisingly as it is a show in workshop, that needs the most work is the script. In short, it takes way, way too long for McCandless to die in Act Two. Granted, no one dies quickly from starvation, but as the back end of the second act kept unfolding, with the number of days he had been without food appearing on the screen behind him, along with diary entries taken from the original book, the play became arthritic in its pace and delivery. The whole show clocked in at about 2:45. It made me wonder if the story was better suited for an opera, a form in which long aria-filled death scenes are expected. Long, long death scenes are tough to pull off in musical theatre.

The whole story is told through a collage of flashbacks intercut with McCandless’s now infamous journey; scenes with his parents, scenes with his younger self, scenes with the people he met along the way. The reason for the device is that we only have the young man’s story because of detective work done by his parents after his disappearance to find out what happened to their son. As they traced his route and met people who remembered him, they pieced his tragedy together until they ultimately found the abandoned bus that was his last home filled with diary pages and makeshift bed, etc.

The construction makes sense, but is in desperate need of trimming. That said, director Mia Walker, who just came off a stint as associate director for Broadway’s Waitress deserves a lot of credit for the production values and inventive use of the stage. Music director Tyler Driskill takes the lush, big score to full flower.

Don’t be put off by the elevator pitch for this musical. It is a unique experience to see a show with this much production value, and wonderful singing packed into a black-box theatre like the Encore. And if it makes it to Broadway, you can say you saw the show back when…

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