Metro Weekly

‘Swept Away’ at Arena Stage: See Worthy

Tony-winner John Gallagher, Jr. leads the impressive, intrepid crew of Arena's transporting new musical "Swept Away."

Swept Away – Photo: Julieta Cervantes / Arena Stage

The thump and twang of The Avett Brothers’ roots rock translates beautifully to the stage in the new musical adventure Swept Away. Having world-premiered with a successful run at Berkeley Rep in 2022, the show — a tragic tale of hard-working, seafaring men — arrives at Arena Stage with most of its original company intact.

That includes director Michael Mayer, a D.C. native with a mile-long list of Broadway credits and a Tony Award for directing Spring Awakening, which also garnered a Tony for performer John Gallagher, Jr., who leads Swept Away.

Gallagher stars as the puckish First Mate on a whaling ship that sets sail in 1888 from New Bedford, Massachusetts, but never makes it back to port. That the Mate survived the shipwreck that ended the voyage is clear from the outset, as he’s visited at his hospital bed by the ghosts of the ship’s Captain (Wayne Duvall), and two from the crew, Little Brother (Adrian Blake Enscoe) and Big Brother (Stark Sands).

Elegant lighting design by Kevin Adams brilliantly distinguishes the living from the dead, and Gallagher’s haunted performance does the rest to set the baleful atmosphere for what’s to come.

As to how the Mate’s deceased three comrades met their fates, John Logan’s book returns to the day the ship left harbor, with Big Brother determined to keep his younger sibling on land, working on their family’s farm.

Swept Away: Stark Sands and Adrian Blake Enscoe - Photo: Julieta Cervantes
Swept Away: Stark Sands and Adrian Blake Enscoe – Photo: Julieta Cervantes / Arena Stage

But, like so many youthful adventurers, Little Brother pays no heed to such dissuasion. He longs to explore the world and tour foreign lands with exotic names like Fiji, Java, and Siam.

Little Brother’s dreamy-eyed innocence might have landed as cloying and cutesy, but Enscoe exudes his guileless spirit through and through, finding sincere hopefulness in every pleasingly sung note. Likewise, Big Brother, who’s trapped on the ship once it sets sail, might, in other hands, register as merely a nay-saying, negative prig, but Sands finds tenderness and endearing protectiveness in the character’s pious stiffness.

He’s a compelling foil for Gallagher’s wily, rascally Mate, who, in his whaling beanie, resembles a livewire Jack Nicholson bouncing around this cuckoo’s nest that is a ship at sea. Mate parries Big Brother’s call to a Sunday prayer, “Lord Lay Your Hand,” with the stomp-happy, you-can-keep-your-God “Ain’t No Man.”

The burly ensemble of crewmen sing along, adding the percussive choreography by David Neumann. The crew also get a good workout leaping about Rachel Hauck’s evocative ship’s deck set singing and dancing the aptly titled work song, “Hard Worker.”

The songs, many already well-known singles by The Avett Brothers, slot into the story, shaped more by the characters than the lyrical content. They combine cohesively as a whole, but only a few, like “Ain’t No Man,” stand out on their own. And none of the musical numbers really tops the spectacular set change that brings about the fatal shipwreck. ‘Bye, ensemble!

The meat of the 90-minute production then happens on the lifeboat where the four survivors — Big Brother, Little Brother, Captain, and Mate — must make harrowing decisions in order to survive. Mayer and his cast, including Duvall, whose Captain offers little character beyond looking like a 19th-century sea captain, masterfully play the tension of a horrifying situation that happens to be based on a real event.

We can see the end coming, and know only one man lives to tell the tale, but the production still delivers a shocking climax, the gut-wrenching conclusion to a hair-raising voyage.

Swept Away (★★★★☆) runs through Jan. 14 at Arena Stage, 1101 6th St. SW.

Tickets are $66 to $105. Call 202-488-3300, or visit

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