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UM grad stars in musical adaptation of ‘Into the Wild’

Michael H. Hodges, Detroit News Fine Arts Writer

You might not think it’s an obvious candidate for a musical, but you would apparently be wrong.

“Into the Wild,” Jon Krakauer’s wrenching account of a privileged young man, Christopher McCandless, who starved to death while trying to live by his wits in the Alaskan outback, topped the bestseller charts.

And at Dexter’s Encore Musical Theatre outside Ann Arbor, the musical stage version had its world premiere in a production that will run through May 7.

A musical, you say?

“This is perfect material for a musical,” said director Mia Walker with a laugh. “It’s all about a person who sets out on his own — a protagonist you can really root for.”

And by its very nature, said Conor Ryan, the New York actor and University of Michigan grad who’s the star, musical theater “is supposed to be an art form that allows characters to express things in song they’re unable to express in speech.”

The well-received 2007 film starring Emile Hirsch was produced and directed by Sean Penn, and nominated for two Academy Awards.

Both the film and the new musical follow McCandless, an athlete who’d just graduated with honors from Emory University, as he criss-crosses the West, meeting various characters and pursuing his quest for a life on the edge that ends in an abandoned bus in the middle of nowhere.

The musical was the brainchild of playwright Janet Allard, who brought in Niko Tsakalakos to help with lyrics and write the music.

The Perseverance Theatre in Anchorage and Juneau commissioned the musical, but after some readings, Ryan says, Allard and her collaborators decided the show should be developed in the Lower 48.

“They felt it wasn’t really right for Alaska,” he said. “Chris McCandless ticks Alaskans off. To them he was an idiot who didn’t respect the land.”

The musical-in-preparation landed in Dexter, of all places, because Allard knew the Encore’s producing artistic director, Dan Cooney, from their time at Yale. Even better, Cooney said he had a condo in town people could live in.

The result was an unusually lively collaboration between actors, writers and director, many of whom were living under the same roof.

“I loved my time in Michigan,” said Walker, who returned to Manhattan shortly after the opening.

“You know, sometimes there’s this attitude that all the talented people are in New York,” she added, “but that’s just not true at all. My eyes have really been opened these past few months.”

For Ryan, who graduated from the U-M musical theater program in 2014, the production has been a marvelous, if somewhat unexpected, homecoming.

The California and Rhode Island native said it wasn’t until after he auditioned that he put two and two together, and remembered that Dexter was right next to Ann Arbor.

“Then I realized if I got this,” Ryan added, “I get to go to Zingerman’s every couple days!”

To prep for the role, Ryan read everything he could get his hands on about the McCandless case, as well as most of the literature the young man had with him at the time of his death.

“I found out what books were with him when they found his body,” he said, “and I read all those — ‘Dr. Zhivago,’ Tolstoy’s ‘Family Happiness’ and Jack London’s ‘Call of the Wild,’ which was sort of Chris’ Bible.”

Ryan hopes audiences will be able to see beyond the hubris, and foolhardiness, that led a promising young man to a bitter and untimely death.

“I hope you’re able to watch somebody make mistakes,” Ryan said, “and instead of rolling your eyes and getting up to leave, you see your brother, your son or your friend. Because Chris is kind of all of us, I think.”

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Twitter: @mhodgesartguy

‘Into the Wild’

The Encore Musical Theatre Company

3126 Broad St., Dexter

Performances: 7 p.m. Thursday; 8 p.m. Friday; 3 and 8 p.m. Saturday; 3 p.m. Sunday through May 7.

Tickets $27-$35