As the audience enters the Berkeley Repertory Theatre, they come across a man sleeping in a hospital bed center stage, bathed in oceanic lights. When the lights fall, waves pound away, setting the melancholic yet hopeful tone for the tasteful drama the entirety of “Swept Away” exudes.
The world premiere of “Swept Away” represents a musical, unstilted gaze into desire, trust and what makes life worth living. With music from three-time Grammy Award nominees The Avett Brothers, direction by five-time Tony Award winner Michael Mayer and a Tony-studded cast, the impression “Swept Away” makes is long-lasting as audiences grapple with their own humanity in the face of disaster.
The musical follows Mate, burdened with demons that follow him to this hospital bed. A decidedly unlikeable character with crude humor and a heavy mistrust of what life has to offer, Mate is confronted by three ghosts from his past: his Captain and two previous crewmates, Big Brother and Little Brother. They rush through the audience at the start of the musical before beams of harsh light hasten the request of their old friend — to tell their story, the way it deserves to be told.
Tonal shifts are gesticulated through the musical’s genre-bending score. The music diverges from classical musical theater, incorporating segments with single acoustic guitars, gorgeously layered strings, satisfying drums and a deservingly prominent banjo — all of which rhythmically suit the personality-rich dancing of the company.
As the crew meets for the first time atop the Captain’s ship before heading out to sea, the music is twangy and hopeful, complementing the buddy movie-esque entrance of Big and Little Brother to the crew. The lighting adds to the emotions imparted by the musical’s strong songs, with orange and yellow hues punctuating earnest moments and crisp white spotlights emphasizing moments of truth from solo cast members.
Standouts include the heartstring-tugging dynamic between Big Brother and Little Brother. Their motivations are complexly entangled, to the credit of the script and music writers. Bored with his rural pace of life, Little Brother runs from home and sprints toward adventure. Big Brother is committed to helping, maybe even saving, his Little Brother, no matter how far he has to travel. Their dynamic raises existential questions for the audience about what it means to care about someone else as well as to confront their own personal motivations and desires.
The songs they harmonize through are echoed by other characters, most notably Mate. Themes of desire, belief and how the two coalesce in characters’ dreams muddle Mate’s own convictions about his life choices, leading to several psychedelic, manic rock solos hinting at Mate’s self-hate and unhappiness. Mate continually breaks the fourth wall to express this inner torture and invoke questioning of the audiences’ own morality and judgment, just as they judge his.
The musical’s tonal shifts are exceptionally jarring, in both positive and negative ways. The key transition between happy-go-lucky ship life to total disaster is impeccably handled by dark, stormy lighting, pounding guitar chords and truly inspirational slo-mo movement by the cast. On the other hand, heavy-handed emotional transitions feel unnecessarily sprinkled throughout the musical to a burdensome, overwhelming point; propelling the story forward may not be entirely worth leaving the audience dazed and behind.
However, minor missteps in pacing can be overlooked when compared to the artistry of “Swept Away”; they did not skimp on the set, hydraulic stage, costume and prop budgets, or on talent in its cast. To fit so many points along the breadth of human emotion into a 90-minute musical is a tough task, one that “Swept Away” handily accomplishes by crystallizing a conclusion for its audience — it is rare to meet someone who knows where they belong.
“Swept Away” will be playing at Berkeley Repertory Theatre from Jan. 9 to March 6.