Review: “Shucked” Pops Loudly on Broadway, Despite Some Empty Calories

In this — wait for it — corny new musical, the score makes a case for country as a natural Broadway genre and the cast turns in strong performances. Shame about the plot, though.

The cast of 'Shucked.'
The cast of ‘Shucked.’ Mathew Murphy & Evan Zimmerman

Shucked | 2hr 15mins. One intermission. | Nederlander Theatre | 208 W. 41st Street | 212-921-8000

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Sure, I like corn: popped at the movies, fermented in a still, or buttered on the cob. I may not revere the yellow nubbins as much as Corn Kid, and certainly not as Brett Kavanaugh likes beer and restricting women’s bodily autonomy. Do I want to nibble on the starchy stuff for two hours—along with a tornado of dad jokes and an admittedly zesty country score? One pines for kale. Turns out you can have too much of a good grain. 

Crafted by an unusual team of Broadway pros and country-music neophytes, Shucked is a lot of fun. Probably 90 minutes of fun that, in a smaller venue, would secure the show’s rightful place alongside Bat Boy, Reefer Madness, and The Toxic Avenger as a subversive metamusical (years ago dubbed “spooficals”). Instead, this small-town versus big-city fable wants to have its cornbread and eat it, too: going heavy on the Hee-Haw–style one-liners while trying to pluck our heartstrings with a few too many sentimental ballads. There’s no law that states musical comedy can’t have deep feels, but the proportions are a little off.

Given how scarce good new musicals have been this season—jukebox misfires (A Beautiful Noise) alternating with transatlantic trash (Bad Cinderella)—I’m sorry to be mixed on a work with this much talent behind the scenes and charm in the spotlight. Jack O’Brien, the frisky veteran director of Hairspray and Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, brings his flair for zany elegance to the cartoonish scenario. The book is by Robert Horn, who surpasses his joke-per-second ratio in Tootsie with nonstop chicken-fried gags that would slot easily into a Jeff Foxworthy set. And the team behind the score—Brandy Clark and Shane McAnally—are established (and proudly out) stars in the country-music world. The two churn out down-home bangers that celebrate independence, resilience and loyalty, making a case for country as a natural Broadway genre. 

The plot is a tissue of silliness, placing it directly in the line of 1930s musical comedies that reigned before Rodgers and Hammerstein “integrated” story and song. In a fantasy pastoral zone known as “Cob County” (think Brigadoon but…corn), a sweet young couple is getting hitched: Maizy (Caroline Innerbichler) and Beau (Andrew Durand). Just as the lovers are about say, “I do,” nearby stalks of corn gasp, “I can’t,” and wither away. Since the villagers subsist on corn for their livelihoods and cultural identity, something must be done. Plucky Maizy heads off to the big city—Tampa!—and soon falls under the sway of con-artist and fake podiatrist Gordy (John Behlmann). She sees a sign that advertises a cure for corns and . . . you get the idea. Gordy spots what he thinks are rare gems in a necklace worn by Maizy, which he learns are just lying about in Cob County, and dollar signs shine in his eyes. 

When not twisting his screwball plot into absurd contortions, Horn pelts us with generous handfuls of puns and one-liners. Arguing over what to do about the crop blight, Beau asks Maizy: “Do you know what your momma would say if she were alive right now?” She replies: “Get me out of this box?” Romancing our heroine in Tampa, Gordy reminisces, “I grew up so poor that if I hadn’t been a boy, I’d have had nothing to play with. The only real friend I ever had was an ear of corn . . . named . . . Willy Maize.” A small bowl of this goes a long way.

Alex Newell in ‘Shucked.’ Mathew Murphy & Evan Zimmerman

Despite corniness fatigue, you have to respect Shucked’s secret weapons: its score and its cast. Clark and McAnally (and music director Jason Howland) understand how country works in a musical-theater context: it’s essentially a heart-bearing genre, with an emotive range from despair to defiant joy, often accompanied by a jaunty optimism that suits the show tune. In contrast to rock, which leans on repetition and intensity, country is about storytelling: heartbreak, prison time, bar brawls, and redemptive romance. Thus Beau, after Maizy leaves him for Gordy, gets a rafter-rattling pick-yourself-up anthem called “Somebody Will.” Thinking she found a cure for the corn, Maizy celebrates herself as a can-do “Woman of the World.” In the supporting role of Lulu, a kind of reverse Ado Annie—a girl who cain’t say yes—the gender-fluid Alex Newell (Unique from Glee) is a multi-octave wonder, their juicy, chunky frame squeezed into a denim minidress, owning the stage with endless shade and a belt that carves crop circles. “Independently Owned,” Lulu’s bluesy anthem as a singleton and corn-liquor distributor who needs no man in her life, is the showstopper of the season. So effective are these numbers, the other tunes pale, leading us back to the initial objection, why two acts? 

Ashley D. Kelley and Grey Henson in ‘Shucked.’ Mathew Murphy & Evan Zimmerman

The cast is entirely adorable. Buttons were surely invented so we could call Innerbichler cute as one. Durand’s affable blend of hunk and fool has weathered well after the unfortunately short-lived Head Over Heels. As two sardonic narrators scene-bombing the narrative, Ashley D. Kelley and Grey Henson are a trifle superfluous to the plot but nonetheless amusing. And ace goofball Kevin Cahoon lands the script’s daffiest punch lines as Peanut, Beau’s dimwitted but good-hearted brother who dispenses bumper-sticker-ready hick wisdom.

Let me stress, there’s much to enjoy—even as the fun wears thin as corn silk. Previous spooficals that Shucked brings to mind make for unflattering comparisons: Urinetown had more bite, The Prom had more heart and The Book of Mormon has bigger laughs. Shorn from its earwormy songs and bubbly ensemble, Shucked tends to fade. Unlike the corn you ate the night before, it doesn’t stick around to remind you. 

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Review: “Shucked” Pops Loudly on Broadway, Despite Some Empty Calories