A story for “those who are part way in love with tragedy,” as the anti-hero protagonist self-describes his tale, accurately pegs the new musical, “Swept Away.” The gorgeous folk-rock score from The Avett Brothers, the star-studded cast with many members reprising roles from the Berkeley Rep 2022 premiere, and the impressive scenic design are a tremendous reward for those who can stomach the bleak premise. Inspired by the real case of 1884 Mignonette Yacht, this whaling voyage turns sour when a shipwreck leaves just four survivors adrift in a lifeboat without food or water. While “Swept Away” treads familiar disaster-survivalist ground, Arena Stage’s already-extended production should still excite theatre junkies, The Avett Brothers’ fans, and anyone longing for a cry.
…’Swept Away’ delivers masterful theatre.
Twenty-two years after the shipwreck, Mate (John Gallagher, Jr.) lies dying alone in a TB ward, guilty and haunted by the ghosts of his past. Specters of his shipmates urge him to confess, launching his recitation of the doomed voyage. Little Brother (Adrian Blake Enscoe) arrives tardy to the ship, naively eager to escape his farming origins for the adventures of the sea. Big Brother (Stark Sands) chases him onto the ship to fetch him home, only to be unluckily stuck on board when they push back from dock. The bitter Captain (Wayne Duvall) has no patience for the earnest and pious brothers, until the calamitous storm lashes the four together.
The cast features many familiar faces and voices to musical theatre fans. John Gallagher, Jr. is best known for his Tony-winning performance as Moritz in “Spring Awakening” and Johnny in Broadway’s “American Idiot.” Stark Sands is a two-time Tony Nominee, one of which was for his lead performance as Charlie Prince in “Kinky Boots.” A large ensemble cast fills out the ship’s crew, dancing and singing until the winds turn.
The Avett Brothers score features top hits in new contexts, including “Ain’t No Man,” “Murder in the City,” and “No Hard Feelings,” alongside many songs off their 2004 album, “Mignonette.” Occasionally, the songs’ transitions are awkward. The oddly upbeat “Go to Sleep” is obliquely fit to the initial deathbed haunting, and the first line of “Murder in the City” comes a bit out of the blue. Other songs, like the rock-tinged “Satan Pulls the Strings,” sung with suitable malevolence by Gallagher, and the title track “Swept Away,” imbued with youthful optimism by Enscoe, slide in seamlessly. Big Brother’s relentless piety and proselytizing is saved by Sands’ clear, crisp vocals from growing tiresome.
Choreography by David Neumann, most heavily featured in the upbeat ensemble numbers “Hard Worker” and “Ain’t No Man,” breathes a down-to-earth life into the early days at sea. The most impressive movement work is the storm that sinks them. On a still dry stage, the illusion of a heaving deck, slick with waves and rain, emerges from bodies flung across the stage and swinging from the ropes.
The set, designed by Rachel Hauck, hovers on an grid framework, allowing the blue-greens of the ocean to swirl beneath the ship’s deck. The wood deck of the ship, complete with railings and riggings, gives way in an epic mid-show transition to tiny lifeboat. Lighting designed by Kevin Adams is key to this transition and the wreck that precedes it, as lightning flashes and watery shadows consume the crew. The sounds of waves, gulls, and ship bells from John Shivers’ sound design round out the setting. The creative design of “Swept Away” is more technical than it appears at first glance. I am still puzzled by how some effects were pulled off.
With themes of sacrifice, absolution, and confession, “Swept Away” unfolds like Christian parable, albeit one better aligned with Easter than Christmas. As long as you are not put off by the tragic story, “Swept Away” delivers masterful theatre. The new arrangements revitalize Avett Brothers songs from years past without straying too far from the folk-rock sound that fans expect. The cast draws from top Broadway and local talent, and despite the grim storyline, director Michael Mayer does find moments for joy and levity. Go with an open mind and you may find yourself swept away.
Running Time: One hour and 30 minutes with no intermission.
Advisory: Age 10+.
“Swept Away” has been extended through January 14, 2024 at Arena Stage, 1101 Sixth Street SW, Washington, DC 20024. For more information and to purchase tickets, go online.