Puns grow knee-high – and in bawdier moments a bit higher – in Shucked, the new musical comedy that combines the winking hayseed humor of Green Acres and Hee Haw with the decidedly urban, gently subversive camp that peppered the Off Broadway scene in the ’90s with kitschy fare like Ruthless!, The Real Live Brady Bunch and Theatre-A-Go!-Go!’s Valley of the Dolls parody.
The musical comes by its unlikely spiritual DNA honestly, or however it can, through the combined and disparate talents of book writer Robert Horn and composers Brandy Clark and Shane McAnally.
Consider that pedigree for a moment: Horn won a Tony for 2019’s Tootsie, and has written for Dame Edna, Designing Women, Bette Midler and RuPaul. Clark and McAnally have stacked up a big barnful of CMA Awards, Grammys and country music hits. Together this trio is a match made in some bizarro Broadway cornfield of dreams, and if the rapid-fire aw-shucked jokes elicit groans almost as often as laughs, the ratio can’t dampen the high spirits and goofy charm.
Directed by three-time Tony Award winner Jack O’Brien (Hairspray, Henry IV, The Coast of Utopia) and produced by Mike Bosner and Jason Owen, Shucked has a plot that pretty much says it all: Set in backwoods Corn Cob County of Red State America, the musical follows locals so devoted to their yellow husk-covered lifeblood that going without would be unthinkable. Like 19th Century Ireland without potatoes unthinkable. See where this is headed?
When some sort of blight causes corn kernels to shrivel and stalks to wither, a plucky bride-to-be named Maizy – she was named, naturally, after…her grandmother – determines to postpone the nuptials to her childhood beau (named, what else, Beau, played by Head Over Heels‘ fine Andrew Durand) to seek out the crop-growin’ expertise she’s certain she’ll find in big city Tampa (the place to go if, as one lyric has it, “you can’t afford Orlando or Savannah”).
Maizy (Caroline Innerbichler, whose lovely, vibrato-sweetened voice hits a good balance between country and show tune) soon falls sway to a slick-talking, debt-ridden (and sherbet-green suit-wearing) podiatrist named Gordy Jackson (Tootsie‘s lanky breakout star John Behlmann, his charm matching his height). If you suspect Maizy might be confused by the podiatrist’s folksy “Corn Doctor” sign, you’d be right.
We’ve already been given a heads up by the show’s two narrators – a hipster duo comprised of a Black woman and white gay man (Ashley D. Kelley, Grey Henson), each out-sassing the other to terrific effect – that Maizy’s bracelet, with its mysterious gemstone, will play a pivotal role in the plot. And so the desperate-for-money doc catches one sparkling glimpse of the bauble and sets his con artistry on the naive Maizy, who says Corn Cob County is just loaded with the purple stones.
Once back home, the lovestruck Maizy and her newfound golddigger run afoul of the townies skeptical of city slicker ways, most notably the stubborn Beau and Maizy’s loving but no-nonsense, whiskey-making cousin Lulu (Alex Newell). Before long there will be no end of farcical duplicity – of both the romantic and fortune-hunting varieties – with lovestruck, tangled, all’s well that ends well pairings as sure to come as next spring’s crop.
Played mostly within the big-barn interior of Scott Pask’s expansive set (shown to good effect by Japhy Weideman’s colorful lighting design), Shucked is chock full, and then chocked some more, with intentional groaners and laugh-despite-yourself bits of Dad Joke wordplay and homespun life lessons, many coming from Beau’s dimwitted brother Peanut (Monarch‘s Kevin Cahoon). These probably play better than they read, but here goes:
“Like that time I chopped down that Christmas tree and you asked if I was going to put it up myself. And I said no, I’d probably put it up in the living room.”
“Like the personal trainer said to the lazy client, ‘this is not working out.’”
“Now, we all know life is a constant balancing act between wondering why you weren’t invited to something, and wondering how to get out of it.”
Some gibes are better than others – Newell’s Lulu seems to have the best (“A wise woman once said… something smarter than any man ever did”) – and whether the comedy gets better in Act II (it does) or the audience simply loses the will to resist (they do), Shucked really does win us over.
As for the musical part of the recipe, the Clark-McAnally score is not so much a mixed bag as a lopsided one, with too many sincere solo ballads, especially in the slower first act. Innerbichler and Durand are both appealing, interesting singers, but they’re saddled with too many repetitive numbers.
Perhaps that’s one of the reasons – but only one – that Newell (Glee, Broadway’s Once On This Island) all but steals Shucked with the showstopping star turn on the finger-snapping, fill-the-rafters “Independently Owned.” At the reviewed performance, Newell was easily the Act 1 audience favorite – standing ovations mid-song – even as the more cohesive second act delivered a steadier line-up of applause-getters (and that includes some nifty bits of Sarah O’Gleby’s choreography, with Durand’s Beau doing some impressively balanced moves on barrels and planks).
When all’s said and done, Shucked is exactly as much fun as you’ll let it be. Go with it, and savor the corn.
Venue: Broadway’s Nederlander Theatre
Director: Jack O’Brien
Book: Robert Horn
Music: Brandy Clark and Shane McAnally
Principal Cast: John Behlmann, Kevin Cahoon, Andrew Durand, Grey Henson, Caroline Innerbichler, Ashley D. Kelley, Alex Newell
Running time: 2 hr 15 min (including intermission)