A world-premiere musical with plenty of Broadway cred and a terrific score by acclaimed roots musicians the Avett Brothers just made its debut at Berkeley Repertory Theater after a lengthy pandemic delay. And while striking in its staging, it may not be the ideal vehicle for the band's bluegrass- and folk-inflected songs in these already trying times.
Swept Away, which boasts a book by Tony-winning playwright and screenwriter John Logan (Broadway's Red, and Moulin Rouge; and the films Skyfall, The Aviator, and Gladiator), in addition to original music by the Grammy-winning Avett Brothers, promises much with its pedigree. It's directed by Michael Mayer, who ferried Green Day's American Idiot to Broadway from its Berkeley Rep debut and also recently directed the Go-Gos' musical Head Over Heels. And the stars include Tony-winner John Gallagher Jr. (Spring Awakening, American Idiot), Tony nominee Stark Sands (Kinky Boots), and a co-star of the Apple TV+ series Dickinson Adrian Blake Enscoe. All three men have fantastic voices and acting chops, and they bring admirable energy to the piece — which takes place almost entirely at sea in the year 1888.
I'll say, before I get to some spoilers, that there are several things about this musical's story that haven't aged well in the pandemic. And while that's no fault of the creative team, it feels, too, like even in the before times it would have been a weak vehicle for the Avett Brothers' lovely and heartfelt music. (Like American Idiot, the score is made up of pre-existing songs from the band's catalogue, and a story has been built around them.) There's a thinness to the plot and a decided lack of character development that leads to some extremely dramatic moments falling flat — and given what's to come in the show's latter 20 minutes, that feels inexcusable.
It's a story that begins at a deathbed in a tuberculosis ward — Gallagher's character, known only as Mate, is alone but visited by the ghosts of three shipmates as he dies of consumption. We then flash back to 1888, to the whaling ship they were all on — and for what seems like a too-brief opening act, there's a pair of upbeat sea shanties from the Avett Brothers' 2004 album Mignonette ("Hard Worker," "Nothing Short of Thankful") to introduce us to the sailors.
Also from that album is the very pretty love song "Swept Away," the melodic sweetness of which is decidedly incoherent with the brutal arc of the story itself.
In trying to string together the band's songs, and in creating this dramatic arc that begins on a briefly hopeful note and ends in depravity and sorrow, Logan took things to a truly dark place. Suffice it to say, the ship the men are on is quickly dashed in a squall, and only four survive in a lifeboat: Gallagher's Mate, two brothers played by Sands and Enscoe, and the Captain, played by Wayne Duvall.
The star of the production, particularly in this mid-show transition from ship to lifeboat, is the stunning set by Rachel Hauck — which becomes this looming, angled monstrosity hovering over a cramped vessel at sea.
So what becomes of four men at sea, with no water or food, when you leave them there to die over the course of two weeks? That's where the musical leaves us, with the Mate forcing the conversation of what lengths they'll go to to survive, and things get uglier, sadder, and more brutal.
Ultimately, the dramatization of this sorry tale might have been more successful if we were given much to care about in these characters. Take away the songs, and we're left with a pair of two-dimensional rubes — Big Brother and Little Brother, one pious and staid, the other seeking adventure who left a girl back home — and the devilish hedonist played by Gallagher, a sailor adrift with no family ties whose only pleasures are drink and sex with prostitutes in port. The Captain carves out a mean and tragic figure of his own, but all told these are hollow shells asking us to invest in their tragic fates.
Gallagher does his able best to imbue his Mate with raw intensity, and it's a pleasure watching him perform and listening to him sing. But by the time we get to the concluding moments — and the song "The Once and Future Carpenter" serves as the show's mildly hopeful capstone as we see Gallagher's character ultimately die — the show feels like a series of unearned revelations. Which is unfortunate, given how moving some of the music is on its own — as disjointed as it often is, in context. The story, in this case, undermines the natural power of the material that begat it.
The lesson in what plays out, I guess, is how maintaining one's humanity and dignity is ultimately more important than mere survival. Or it's about how we'd all be surprised what we'd be capable of in a crisis. But I'm not sure any of us needed or wanted those lessons this week.
The show is still going to attract fans of the Avett Brothers and fans of Berkeley Rep's track record of terrific work, and it's already been twice extended through early March. And it's absolutely artful in telling its tale. But in what's already been a stressful and challenging winter, Swept Away ends up more of a dour slog than the kind of balm we all ache for these days.
'Swept Away' plays through March 6 at Berkeley Rep. Find tickets here.