Review: SWEPT AWAY at Arena Stage

SWEPT AWAY sets sail at Arena Stage

By: Dec. 08, 2023
Review: SWEPT AWAY at Arena Stage
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It’s no secret Arena Stage has quite a knack for developing shows that move on to Broadway after being produced in the District. The regional theatre stalwart, according to its website,  “has nurtured and produced 22 productions that have had a life on Broadway '' with the most recent being the 2017 Tony Award winner for Best Musical, DEAR EVAN HANSEN. Arena’s newest offering this season, SWEPT AWAY, has all the makings of the next production to transfer to the Great White Way. With a star-studded cast oozing with Broadway credits, an award-winning director, and famous song writers, Swept Away clearly has an eye north up I-95.

SWEPT AWAY is an original musical tells the story of four survivors of a shipwreck after a storm sinks their whaling vessel off the coast of New Bedford, Massachusetts. Set in 1888 towards the end of the whaling industry’s global dominance, this original musical is a story of family, redemption, forgiveness, and survival. At its core, SWEPT AWAY is about the very real, human relationships between the survivors and their respective pasts that inform those relationships. 

The musical begins in a sick ward for those suffering from tuberculosis, an ailment that was once considered a death sentence. It’s been 20 years since the shipwreck, and it’s here we meet one of the survivors, known simply as “Mate.” Mate, played to perfection by Tony Award winner John Gallagher Jr., is living out his final days in the ward and is wracked by the guilt of what happened in that lifeboat many years ago. What exactly happened is not revealed until much later, but it is clearly something that’s weighed heavily on Mate’s conscience ever since. 

Mate is haunted in the ward by the ghosts of the other three shipwreck survivors - Little Brother (Adrian Blake Enscoe), Big Brother (Stark Sands), and Captain (Wayne Duvall) - who urge him to “tell our story” as if speaking the truth will expunge his guilt and set his conscience free. Giving into this phantasmic scene on the road to redemption, we follow Mate back 20 years and onto the deck of the cursed ship in all its pre-wreckage glory. The stage is swarmed by strapping sailors who make up a dynamic and woefully under-used ensemble. 

The show wastes little time moving the action, for better or worse. It’s a tight 90 minutes without an intermission, so it means we have little time to learn about anyone outside of these four key players. Along with the aforementioned Mate, we meet the captain of the ship, known simply as Captain (played by an excellent Duvall). He’s an old salt-of-the-Earth type most likely in the waning days of his whaling career. 

The sailors are joined on-stage by Little Brother (Adrian Blake Enscoe), a youthful and perhaps idealistic rookie sailor in search of a life beyond the farm back home in the American South. He’s eager to join the ship’s crew and plunge headfirst into whaling life. Unbeknownst to Little Brother, he’s been followed onto the boat by Big Brother (Stark Sands) who charges himself with bringing his little brother back home and away from this life aboard the treacherous seas.  

He’s unsuccessful and, worse yet, the ship takes off before Big Brother can get back on shore. They’re both stuck on board now, and this seals their fate as deckhands for the voyage. Luckily, the musical allows us to catch our breath here, and it’s a good thing too because we’re treated to several masterful melodies sung by the elite talent assembled in this company. This “great music meets great talent” synergy reaches its climax when Adrian Blake Enscoe sings the titular song to perfection. For Enscoe, it’s a remarkable accomplishment to have the most memorable song of the evening while sharing the stage with such luminaries of the industry. 

Shortly after this beautiful song, the ship sails right into a violent storm that kills all but four of the crew. Mate, Little Brother, Big Brother, and Captain are all that remain, and they now must survive in a small life boat with no food, no water, and very little hope of survival. We watch as the survivors fend off madness, starvation, dehydration, and all of the other worst-case scenarios that come their way. It’s a sprint to the finish line from here though as the show wraps up all-too-quickly with a shocking twist and an epilogue of sorts in rapid succession. It’s a gratifying ending to the story, but far too much of the piece’s denouement is jammed into what feels like a page and a half of dialogue. 

As has been well-marketed in this highly-anticipated original musical, the music and lyrics are by “America’s Biggest Roots Band” (Rolling Stone) The Avett Brothers. This American folk rock band delivers exquisite melodies as well as toe-tapping, hummable earworms in their bluegrass/folk/Americana-infused score, and it’s a successful dip into the musical theatre genre for the group. Hopefully, it will not be their last as the music and lyrics are as fine as any original musical in the last several years. 

This cozy campfire of a score is unfortunately mismatched with a script that is perhaps too derivative of titles like MOBY DICK and IN THE HEART OF THE SEA. It simply does not deliver the same punch as the music and lyrics. The survivors are not unique characters but instead amalgamations of previous shipwreck tales well told in American culture. The old sea captain at the end of his career, the seedy sailor who is no stranger to the underbelly of society, the new recruit thinking a whaling ship is the key to adventure and seeing the world, etc. It feels as if we’ve met these characters before, and the piece struggles to find originality as a result. 

While 90 minute shows do seem to be increasingly popular these days, perhaps SWEPT AWAY would have benefited from bucking this trend. It is a plus that the show is without its fattier bits - there’s no unnecessary ballads, stray plot points, or “why are you here” characters - but the show can’t help but feel incomplete. We spend so little time learning about the four survivors - save for some exposition-thick dialogue here and there and a few bars of music - that one may have a hard time connecting with the crew as people. The audience only has bits and pieces of background from the survivors, and the bits we do latch onto feel conventional and ordinary. This unfortunately takes away the script’s emotional punch at the conclusion. 

Despite these pitfalls, the stellar cast and original score are arguably worth the price of admission. John Gallagher Jr. as Mate is gifted with the most dynamic role of the four leads, and he succeeds in creating multitudes with material that falls short of its enormous potential. He is quite simply brilliant and worth a ticket himself. This takes nothing away from the equally fantastic performances of his co-stars. Stark Sands and Adrian Blake Enscoe shine as brothers willing to sacrifice everything for each other, and Wayne Duvall matches Gallagher in that he makes the most of somewhat bare material. There’s no shortage of talent in the ensemble either, but as mentioned previously, the stage time is far too short to enjoy this solid group.

Special mention should be made for the Broadway-caliber work of Set Designer Rachel Hauck who had the challenge of creating both the deck of a ship and a solitary life boat in a vast ocean in the same space. The deck and partial mast of the whaling ship is an impressive sight to see upon entering the theatre, and it’s equally impressive to see just how Hauck achieves the show’s latter half setting on the open sea. The scene shift prompted the appropriate “oos” and “ahs” from the audience at the show’s opening, in fact.

With elite talent across the board, a truly stunning score, and a masterful set, SWEPT AWAY has tremendous potential as a production with an eye for Broadway. John Logan’s script draws too frequently from conventions of past shipwreck stories, and the audience’s connection to the characters suffer as a result. Still, the musical may have enough strong elements to cover up the shortfalls. 

SWEPT AWAY is directed by the legendary Tony Award-winning director, Michael Mayer. The creative team also includes David Neumann (Choreographer), Brian Usifer (Music Supervisor/Music Arrangements & Orchestrations), Chris Miller (Music Arrangements & Orchestrations), Will Van Dyke (Music Director), Rachel Hauck (Set Designer), Susan Hilferty (Costume Designer), Kevin Adams (Lighting Designer), John Shivers (Sound Designer), Johanna McKeon (Associate Director), Brian Munn (Associate Choreographer), and Matt Deitchman (Associate Music Director).

SWEPT AWAY will be playing at Arena Stage’s Kreeger Theater from now until January 14, 2024. The show runs approximately 90 minutes with no intermission.

PHOTO CREDIT: Stark Sands (Big Brother), John Gallagher, Jr. (Mate), Wayne Duvall (Captain), and Adrian Blake Enscoe (Little Brother) in Arena Stage's East Coast premiere of SWEPT AWAY. Photo by Julieta Cervantes.


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