Avett Brothers musical ‘Swept Away’ makes for a spellbinding tale

Avett Brothers musical ‘Swept Away’ makes for a spellbinding tale

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Waves of roots rock and soulful introspection come crashing one after the other in “Swept Away,” the transfixing new musical that officially opened Wednesday night at Arena Stage. Inspired by the Avett Brothers’ 2004 album “Mignonette,” about four men stranded in the Atlantic Ocean after a 19th-century shipwreck, this morality tale launches with toe-tapping propulsion before anchoring for an intimate elegy on grief and guilt.

If the show’s covid-hampered premiere last year at the Bay Area’s Berkeley Rep was a choppy embarkment, then “Swept Away” finds its sea legs at Arena Stage. Directed by Michael Mayer with a pitch-perfect cast and talent-laden creative team, the unabashedly unorthodox jukebox musical boasts clear Broadway aspirations. Even during an imperfect back half, there’s so much to admire that one can’t imagine such a promising run being its last.

John Logan, the Tony-winning playwright of 2009’s “Red” and screenwriter behind “Gladiator,” “The Aviator” and “Skyfall,” smartly weaves threads of fact-based tragedy and tunes from the Avett Brothers’ folksy songbook (“Mignonette” and beyond) into a tight, 90-minute yarn. Through his four nameless, fictionalized protagonists, Logan probes the contrasting perspectives that might draw a man to the sea. Some, this show reasons, want to embrace adventure and brotherhood. Others go to escape self-loathing or misery.

John Gallagher Jr.’s deviously charming Mate, already onstage on a hospital bed when the audience files into Arena’s Kreeger Theater, falls in that second camp. Coughing up blood in a New York City tubercular ward, Mate twists and turns in his sleep as apparitions of his fellow survivors — Adrian Blake Enscoe’s wide-eyed Little Brother, Stark Sands’s protective Big Brother and Wayne Duvall’s cantankerous Captain — insist that he recall the grisly ordeal they endured 22 years earlier.

Thus Gallagher (reuniting with Mayer, who directed him to a Tony in the original 2006 production of “Spring Awakening”) becomes our emcee as the action flashes back to a doomed 1888 whaling expedition off the coast of New Bedford, Mass. “Such a story it is,” Mate muses, “for those that are partway in love with tragedy.” Adept at traversing in torment, Gallagher astounds as a broken man who is more attuned to his demons than he’d like to admit. But Gallagher’s careening charisma also lends levity to the voyage, as he delivers delightful dashes of gallows humor and steers the ensemble of shipmates through the early earworms “Hard Worker” and “Nothing Short of Thankful.”

While Gallagher is the show’s draw, Enscoe is its revelation. Known for playing Emily Dickinson’s older sibling in the Apple TV Plus series “Dickinson,” Enscoe brings endearing innocence and heavenly vocals to Little Brother, a thrill-seeking farm boy with a girl waiting for him back home. After harmonizing handsomely with Gallagher on the aching title song, he follows suit with Sands on the brotherly duet “Murder in the City.”

“Kinky Boots” alumnus Sands, meanwhile, gives a shattering performance as the spiritually devout Big Brother, a homebody who follows his sibling onboard before realizing he can do only so much to shield him from the world’s horrors. And Duvall plays Captain — who sings “May It Last,” a lilting ode to uncertain exploration — with prescient existentialism and, later, devastating denial.

Brian Usifer and Chris Miller arranged and orchestrated the Avett Brothers’ score, adding lush strings to its guitar-plucking pleasures. David Neumann’s stomp-and-clap choreography puts the ship’s crew to good use, especially during the rousing mashup “Ain’t No Man”/“Lord Lay Your Hand” and the harrowing shipwreck. That pivotal point gives Rachel Hauck, the scenic designer behind “Hadestown’s” midshow coup de theatre, another chance to orchestrate a staggering set transformation. (Lighting designer Kevin Adams and sound designer John Shivers also deserve plaudits for selling that sequence.)

Although “Swept Away” runs without an intermission, the wreck divides the vibrant first half from a murkier second that needs fine-tuning. As the cast is narrowed to the lifeboat-bound foursome, the staging becomes unfortunately static. But more regrettably, Logan’s book lets his characters down with a six-day time jump that skips the stranded survivors’ initial salvation and thrusts them straight into despair. By ferrying these men right to death’s door, the show undercuts their descent and turns one character’s heel turn into something of a leap.

Still, the cast plays the subsequent moral dilemma so sublimely that “Swept Away” finds its bearings all the same. As questions of faith, human nature and self-forgiveness fuel the pressure cooker of a conclusion, Gallagher rises to the occasion by sinking Mate into despondence. In embracing its darker instincts, the show aligns with such boundary-pushing musicals as “Next to Normal” and “Dear Evan Hansen,” which also ran at Arena Stage before venturing north. A repeat of that outcome, it must be said, appears far from assured. But wherever the winds of show business may blow, “Swept Away” has proved itself worthy of a Broadway christening.

Swept Away, music and lyrics by the Avett Brothers, book by John Logan. Directed by Michael Mayer. Choreography, David Neumann; music arrangements and orchestrations, Brian Usifer and Chris Miller; music direction, Will Van Dyke; set, Rachel Hauck; costumes, Susan Hilferty; lighting, Kevin Adams; sound, John Shivers. About 90 minutes. Through Jan. 14 at Arena Stage, 1101 Sixth St. SW. arenastage.org.

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