By: Samuel L. Leiter
April 13, 2023: Shucked, the new musical at the Nederlander Theatre, may be as corny as Kansas in August, but it’s for that very reason it’s also one of the surprise delights of the soon-ending 2022-23 season. This cornucopia of often undeniably hysterical puns and zingers has a book by Bob Corn (I mean, Horn; Tootsie) and music and lyrics by Brandy Clark and Shane McAnally, highly successful songwriters making their Broadway debuts. It’s a “Hee Haw”-like show offering row after row of comic kernels, some as blue as the sky, and some earfuls awful, but you’d have to be a scarecrow not to at least crack a smile at many of them.
For all the show’s silly jackass humor, it’s carried by a top-notch score that manages to combine a solid country sound with classic Broadway appeal. Music Man will spring quickly to many minds, including thematically. For all the cornball antics, some of these numbers are actually emotionally packed. It’s easy to imagine a few being covered by leading country stars down the line. Performed here by a fresh, versatile ensemble of largely unknowns (for the moment), Shucked harvests a truckful of laughs while somehow managing to engage our sympathies for the corniest of romantic plots and characters.
Scott Pask’s awesome setting of a huge, weather-beaten barn, fitted with ramps and platforms, and held together by rotting boards that let in the light (brilliantly provided by Japhy Weideman), serves, with insets, for all the action. Most of it takes place in a Southern town in Corn Cob County isolated from the outer world by walls of corn, the product responsible for its peace and prosperity. Introducing us to this parochial, Jesus-loving, corn-fed, racially diverse, country community is a comical mini-chorus of two, the Storytellers (Grey Henson, white, and Ashley D. Kelley, black). The pair are soon taking part in “Corn,” a rousing company number offering a humorous history about the town’s cornerstone. You might say that “Corn”—(“It’s mozola [sic] and it’s ethanol, it’s corn we were corn bred, we were corn fed out here, we really feel like we were chosen we love corn flakes, we love corn cakes”)—is to Shucked what “Hair” is to Hair—“Gimme head [sic] with hair/Long beautiful hair/Shining, gleaming,/ Streaming, flaxen, waxen”)
Soon, just as our adorably spunky heroine, Maizy (Caroline Innerbichler), is about to marry young farmer Beau (Andrew Durand), the corn on the nearby stalks withers, and the marriage is postponed until a solution can be found. Maizy—despite Beau’s opposition—decides to find help on the outside, singing about the need for the place to open up to the world (through windows, not walls).
She travels to Tampa, which is cleverly satirized; misunderstanding a shop sign advertising someone who treats strippers’ corns, Maizy hires the proprietor, Gordy (John Behlmann), a good-looking but sleazy con man, in debt to the mob, to fix her town’s agrarian ills. He, because of a bracelet she wears, thinks her town doesn’t realize it’s sitting on a precious mineral, and goes along, hoping to pull a fast one on the locals.
This leads to a number of complications when Maizy thinks she’s in love with Gordy, while Beau engages in a rivalry with him for her affections. At the same time, Gordy, whose machinations eventually come to naught, simultaneously falls into the clutches of Maizy’s lustful cousin, Lulu (Alex Newell), a sassy, wise-cracking, whiskey-making entrepreneur, her hair a mass of flaming red cornrows. The lovers find their true loves and, mirabile dictu, not only does the corn spring back to life before our eyes, but we learn the origins of the Storytellers who’ve been our companions throughout, not only reciting the tale but playing various roles within the ensemble.
Legendary director Jack O’Brien, nearing 83, still packs a potent Broadway punch as this consistently upbeat, fast-paced show moves on from joke to joke, song to song, production number to production number (with peppy choreography by Sarah O’Gleby and cute hick costuming by Tilly Grimes). The effect is like an extended vaudeville sketch, with the actors themselves often willing to share their own reactions to the endless gibes, which one can easily imagine them breaking up at when first delivered in rehearsal. Usually, the lines are delivered not so much to get a laugh as in the form of naïve responses to something someone has said. When Maizy announces that she couldn’t lie, the sensual Lulu answers: “Men lie all the time. Hell, one tried to convince me you could suck out a kidney stone.”
Chief among the jokesters is Beau’s brother Peanut, the ideal rube, perfectly limned by Kevin Cahoon. Peanut is a straight-faced fountain of one-liners, taking everything literally. Asked what he thinks about something, for example, he’s likely to spout non sequiturs about just what’s on his mind, such as “I think people in China must think about what to call their good plates.” When Beau declares “You can put sugar on bullshit. That don’t make it a brownie,” you can depend on Peanut to respond, “Great, now you tell me.” But everyone gets to toss off laugh-worthy squibs, especially the Storytellers, as when one of them notes, “Trouble was brewing, and it doesn’t take a cow smoking a joint to know just how high the stakes were!” Da-da-bum.
Each of the other principals is likewise a scene stealer, starting with the apple-pie pretty Ms. Innerbichler as Maizy, who would be a splendid Peter Pan, and makes her mark with tunes like “Maybe Love,” “Woman of the World,” and “Friends,” shared with Alex Newell’s Lulu, all songs I suspect will stick around. Mr. Durand as Beau gets to display a resounding set of pipes with “Somebody Will” and “I’ll Be Okay.” Mr. Behlmann couldn’t be better as the charming con man, especially in a number where he converses with different people on two different cellphones, unable to make out what he’s being told. Alex Newell, playing Lulu as a proud, full-bodied, mini-skirted voluptuary with boobs big enough to mow down anything that dares to cross her path, brings exquisite comic timing to her every bit of byplay, and practically tears the barn down with “Independently Owned.” Finally, there are the wonderful Storytellers, Mr. Henson and Ms. Kelley, as funny as they are musically talented, who tie the whole hootenanny together.
As long as New York audiences—many themselves from rural places—don’t mind too much hick in their shtick, Shucked should keep Broadway laughing till the cows come home.
208 W. 41st Street, NYC
Photography: Mathew Murphy & Evan Zimmerman