‘Shucked’ on Broadway serves up so much delicious corn
The Daily Beast
April 4, 2023
In the hilarious, joke-stuffed “Shucked,” a town faces a mysterious corn crop failure, while Alex Newell sings the first literally show-stopping belter of the Broadway season.
How many jokes—really good jokes, really good funny jokes, really good terrible jokes, really excellent silly jokes—can you stuff into a Broadway musical? In Shucked (Nederlander Theatre, booking to Sept 3), they are deliciously relentless. Accompanying their shameless deployment—Robert Horn is responsible for the musical’s hilarious book—are Brandy Clark and Shane McAnally’s songs, which are not only just as funny as the jokes but also immediately hummable ear-worms (it was announced yesterday the cast album will be available digitally from May 5, and on CD June 9).
Top of those tunes is the number that brings the show to a whooping, cheering, standing-ovation standstill. Emmy-nominated Glee and Once on This Island star Alex Newell—Shucked’s standout performer—earns this Broadway season’s first show-stopping moment for the roof-raisingly wonderful belter, “Independently Owned.”
The pleasure of watching Shucked is not only that it’s very funny, it is also a musical comedy comfortable in its merry skin, thanks to Jack O’Brien’s equally mischievous direction, full of stop-starts, playing to the audience, and letting the jokes and reaction to the jokes breezily pace the show. The show’s witty advertising campaign—one commercial featured a quote ascribed to George Santos, “I saw it 300 times before it even opened!”—matches the end-goods in the best way. “Zany” is a word to be used with critical caution, but Shucked merits it. Grafted around the jokes is a story about lovers at odds and a small, proudly hick town with a failing corn harvest, but the joy of the show is not really in that story—it is sitting back and drinking in Shucked’s ridiculousness, and its ridiculous sense of fun.
Here we are in Cob County, represented by Scott Pask’s huge barn with rafters, and Japhy Weideman’s lush lighting of day and night. Two storytellers, played by Ashley D. Kelley and Grey Henson, work in arch tandem, narrating the events of this story of “farm to fable,” in a place “somewhere North of South and South of North… where being from somewhere is who you are.” The battery of jokes in Shucked is like one long episode of The Muppet Show’s “Pigs in Space” and “Veterinarian’s Hospital.” If a gap of silence opens up, trust one of the narrators to fill it with the likes of, “Like the proctologist with the short arms said, ‘There’s something not right, I just can’t put my finger on it.’”
Before the corn dies we know its importance here; as the refrain from an early song in celebration of corn goes, “It’s the same goin’ in, comin’ out.” The crop breathes its last just as the show’s central couple, the seemingly simple and sweet Maizy (yes, really; played by Caroline Innerbichler) and Beau (Andrew Durand) are about to get married. “It was an unsolved mystery,” one narrator says of the death of the crop. “Which, in fact, are just mysteries.” When we hear of a horse coming in at “twenty to one,” it earns the retort that its competitors came in at 12.30. You will groan all your best groans at Shucked.
When Maizy resolves to leave Cob County to find a solution to the mystery, her cousin Lulu (powerhouse performer Newell) says: “I have caught colds, catfish, pink eye, and Momma peein’ on a preacher. But leaving here? You know we can’t do that.”
So, it’s the oldest story; think Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz, having to leave Kansas for Oz to realize there was no place like home. As Maizy says, as she contemplates leaving Cob County, We’re all so scared of outsiders, we’re willing to lose the very thing we’re trying to protect. Well we can’t let fear destroy what we love most.”
The fun thing about Shucked is that its central good characters are funny too, and good at being funny; so often in these sorts of shows they have the most boring of lines and worthy songs. Here Beau resolves: “I’m gonna figure out what’s wrong with this corn, then we’ll finish what we started and have our honeymoon, ‘cause this corn’s not the only thing turning blue.” When Maizy recalls her mother was killed by lightning, she adds for explanation rather than clarification, “Lightning was a rodeo donkey.” Her mother would always say her father was nothing but a scoundrel, Maizy says. In what way, she is asked. Here, Maizy imitates her mother’s deep voice: “Your daddy was nothin’ but a scoundrel.”
Beau’s confidant, his brother Peanut, is played by Kevin Cahoon who relishes every ridiculous line he is given. Peanut is often asked for his thoughts, leading to such insights as: “I think if you can pick up your dog with one hand, you own a cat. I think people in China must wonder what to call their good plates.” Also: “I think when a movie says ‘based on a true story,’ it happened, but with uglier people. I think if you have time to jump in front of a bullet for someone, they have time to move.”
Part of the pleasure of Shucked is waiting to see if Cahoon can outdo himself, or simply lose it when he has to say the likes of: “I just passed a huge squirrel, which is odd because I don’t remember eating one.” And: “I never understood why they are called chicken tenders until I let one caress my face.”
Maizy’s journey to civilization—well, Tampa—includes a song odyssey, encompassing boats, donkeys, bulls, goats, and planes until she finally reaches Oz/Tampa, a technicolor wonderland of people eating frozen yogurt. Or as the song has it: “In Tampa between the Botox and the tannin’ beds and plasma/Now there’s a reason for another stanza…” Tilly Grimes’ dayglo Tampa costumes are perfectly atrocious, and then yee-ha plaid-perfect for Corn Cob County.
Of course, in the big bad city there’s no good to be found, specifically in the shape of Gordy Jackson (John Behlmann), a “grifting, horse gambling con man posing as a podiatrist.” Behlmann leans into the cartoonish sleaziness of the role, but also Gordy’s haplessness; as his character sings, he once was “mocked by the Mob, ‘cause I robbed a bank that had already been robbed.”
Maizy naturally falls for this clearly awful, if hot, douche hard. When he figures out that the town is the site of precious rocks that could bail him out of a sticky situation with a mob boss, he decides to seduce Maizy and return to steal the rocks for his own ends.
Amidst the wackiness, Jason Howland music supervision, direction, orchestrations, and arrangements also shine. As well as lovely ensemble numbers, there are standout solo ones, like Newell’s “Independently Minded” and Durand’s bracingly fierce (given his sweet and nerdy character) “Somebody Will.”
Comic complications pile on top of the jokes. Gordy is bewitched by Lulu, and Lulu by him—first, it is player spots player, and then it is something else. But by now he is down to marry Maizy, and still has his eyes on the precious rocks—even though a very funny sequence of phone tag misunderstandings underlines his foolishness for remaining so focused on them. Sarah O’Gleby’s choreography mirrors O’Brien’s playful direction, with nimble stage-filling numbers such as when the men of the town’s night out features both a dazzling dance, as well as a witty series of frozen tableaux, including going to the restroom together.
If there is an inevitability right from the start of loose ends being tied up, the bad becoming good, true loves being united, and the crop of corn being saved, Shucked draws it out with more gleefully silly hilarity. Peanut tries to comfort a lovelorn Beau with, “We all say things we regret. Like that time I said ‘you first’ when the doctor told me to take my shirt off,” and his standout, “Look. I have no idea what’s gonna happen. Heck, if I had a crystal ball, I’d probably walk real different.” When Lulu tells Gordy, “Oh, honey, I may not have my virginity, but I still have the box it came in,” it gets almost as loud an audience roar as “Independently Owned.”
A “little love” turns out to be the key to save Cob County, and the musical leans into its down-home heart with ears of corn magically revivified to thunderous applause. It is a happy ending, and a reaffirmation of there’s-no-place-like home just as sincere as Dorothy’s in The Wizard of Oz—although, in the funny bone-tapping spirit of the show, one of the narrator’s closing thoughts resonated more for this author. Corn nurtures and sustains us, we are told, “until we turn it into something toxic that shortens our lives and make us fat.”