Encore, Dexter’s semiprofessional theater whose province is musicals, is currently premiering a musical version of Into the Wild. If I remember it for nothing else, it will be the production that forever severed my reflex to connect the word “musical” with the word “comedy.” The subject is a young outdoorsman from a privileged family whose hunger for a life off the grid eventually led him to starve to death in an abandoned school bus in the Alaskan wilderness. Chris McCandless’s life story was made famous in 1996 by Jon Krakauer’s book of the same title.

McCandless is smart, smug, priggish, boyish; a noble nonmaterialist; an explorer caught in the wrong century. Because musicals tend to flatten complex characters into more vivid, theatrically useful versions of themselves, the best and most surprising achievement of Into the Wild is to retain the contradictions of the man in Krakauer’s book. Conor Ryan is made for this physically demanding role. Tall and lanky, with a voice almost too robust for the small theater, he seems by the end to have shrunk to half his own size.

Tappan middle-schooler Connor Casey, who plays young Chris, is wonderful too. In one heartbreaking scene old and young Chris sing to each other. A talented supporting cast brings to life a trail of characters Chris encountered in his travels–actress Alexandra Reynolds, with the sparkly, sly whimsy of a young Parker Posey, is particularly beguiling playing an almost-girlfriend.

Creators Janet Allard (book and lyrics) and Niko Tsakalakos (music and lyrics) chose to play out the story chronologically, with a first act filled with events, movement, and people. This leaves an entire second act about a guy alone in a trailer starving to death. To soften the unrelenting and horrendous monotony, all the characters from the first act walk through from time to time, as memories and apparitions. Even the scenery is more alive than the protagonist as the show drags on, with slides and film footage projected against the back walls.

Into the Wild was commissioned by a theater in Juneau and was workshopped in all four corners of the U.S., yet is still being billed as a “developmental” premiere. That word was presumably added as a caution because someone up the chain of command still thinks things aren’t right yet. In Act Two, even the costumes and music aren’t much help, for they’re as low-key as a 1970s Loggins and Messina concert. Backed by a small, hardworking orchestra of guitar, piano, drums, and assorted strings, many of the songs are strikingly lyrical, even hummable and memorable–but four numbers into Act Two, he’s singing a song titled “Hunger,” and there are still nine more songs to go. The slender, grim storyline, attenuated staging, and quiet orchestra never muster enough of a dramatic punch in the second act to answer the promising first act.

The show runs through May 7.