Review: Avett Brothers-Inspired Musical Swept Away Hoists Enthralling Sails

The production is scheduled to conclude its run at DC’s Arena Stage later this month.

Adrian Blake Enscoe (leaping) stars in the Avett Brothers musical Swept Away at Arena Stage.
(© Julieta Cervantes)

When a shipwreck leaves four desperate survivors clinging to life on a lifeboat for weeks, the question becomes, “How far would one go to survive?” That’s the moral dilemma that drives the drama of the gripping musical Swept Away, playing at Arena Stage through January 14.

Directed by Tony Award winner Michael Mayer (Spring Awakening), the harrowing tale of Swept Away is told through the music of legendary folk band the Avett Brothers, acclaimed for their powerful lyrics and sweeping harmonies. In 2004, the band’s Mignonette album was inspired by an 1884 shipwreck and, you guessed it, the struggle of four men to survive.

Writer Josh Logan used that album as the catalyst for Swept Away, following a crew on a whaling ship off the coast of New Bedford, Massachusetts, that runs into an unpredictable and deadly storm.

The eerie tale begins with Mate (played by Broadway veteran John Gallagher Jr.), held up in a tuberculosis ward circa the beginning of the 20th century, seeing ghosts of his past, haunting him to “tell their story.”

Stark Sands, John Gallagher, Jr., Wayne Duvall, and Adrian Blake Enscoe star in Swept Away at Arena Stage.
(© Julieta Cervantes)

The action shifts back in time to 1888 as a whaling ship prepares for one last journey — it’s been sold off for parts once it makes landfall following the trip. The crew is joined by the adventurous Little Brother (Adrian Blake Enscoe) and protective Big Brother (Stark Sands), the latter coming aboard to stop his younger sibling from making a mistake. But when the ship takes off with him still on board, both brothers must deal with life on the treacherous seas.

Enscoe and Sands have a strong chemistry, despite only a middling backstory for their characters. We know both are farmers and Little Brother longs for more, while Big Brother is content with life the way it is. The two settle in quickly as believable brothers and the action takes a gasp-worthy turn that shows how much the brothers truly care for each other.

Gallagher quickly reminds why he is a Tony-winning star — charismatic, charming, and ideally suited for the songs of the Avett Brothers, especially the haunting “Satan Pulls the Strings.” With so many of the tunes requiring gifted harmonies, Enscoe, Sands, and the ensemble all rise to the occasion of singing the lyrics of the Grammy-winning band. Enscoe is especially poignant on “A Gift for Melody Anne.”

Adrian Blake Enscoe, Stark Sands, John Gallagher, Jr. and Wayne Duvall star in Swept Away at Arena Stage.
(© Julieta Cervantes)

Wayne Duvall is pitch-perfect as the old, stern Captain, his weathered face etched with years of experience of countless voyages, and knowing that this is his last adventure on the waters. Duvall balances that melancholy with a tough exterior, hammering it home in the song “May It Last.”

One of the exemplary numbers in the production is a mash-up of “Lord Lay Your Hand on My Shoulder” and “Ain’t No Man,” which conjures a battle of good and evil between Big Brother and Mate, as they personify the angel and devil whispering in the ear of Little Brother to get him to follow their chosen way.

The four main characters may seem not to have much in common, and Captain definitely has no patience for the stowaway older brother, going as far as ignoring him on-board, but then circumstances thrust the quartet together in life-altering ways.

The hard-working ensemble is fun to watch as they dance and sing around the ship in memorable songs such as “Hard Worker,” but we learn practically nothing about any of them. One of the biggest shocks of the musical involves these men late in the show, but it may have packed even more of a punch if we cared just a sliver about their stories.

The Company of Swept Away dances at Arena Stage.
(© Julieta Cervantes)

While the set may seem minimalist at first, designer Rachel Hauck has set an extraordinary scene, accomplished with a realistic whaling ship set up over a grid floor, acting as the ocean — complete with the perceived waves and restlessness of the water. In an awe-inspiring moment mid-show, the set transforms to a simple lifeboat following the downing of the ship, but the terror of the ocean remains. Kevin Adams’s lighting design plays an important role in crafting the fierce storm that leads to the wreck and the unfortunate situation for the characters ahead.

At just over a little over 90 minutes, the story does suffer from a lack of character development for the Captain and the crew. Still, the musical is fresh, the actors marvelous, and the harmonies powerful enough to make the Avett Brothers proud.

Swept Away had its world premiere at Berkeley Repertory in early 2022, with all four of the stars involved in that production as well, and the comradery between them was apparent. If the show sets its sails for Broadway in the future — and it should! — beefing up the backstories and bringing it to a more Broadway-friendly two acts could help it make big waves.

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Swept Away

Closed: January 14, 2024