theater review

At Shucked, the Corniness Is as High as an Elephant’s Eye

Ashley D. Kelley and Grey Henson in Shucked at the Nederlander. Photo: Mathew Murphy & Evan Zimmerman

The best way I can describe the musical Shucked is by paraphrasing the Roy Cohn character in Angels in America: “It’s about corn. Singing corn … You’ll love it!” To be precise, the corn in Shucked does not itself sing, but it is sung about quite a lot. This is a whole, full-throated countrified musical based around the U.S.’s favorite heavily subsidized grain. The tale is set in Cob County. And the heroic lead is named Maizy, a gal who’s on a quest to find herself but first needs to fix the sudden and mysterious illness affecting her town’s cash crop. There are jokes about corn and songs about corn and puns about corn often containing even more jokes about corn — my favorite lyric has got to be “Don’t need a man for flatteries / I got a corncob and some batteries.” Corn is this show’s reason for being, its maize-on d’ear-tre, and it succeeds by keeping so hyperfocused on its aims that you can’t think about anything else. “Corn!” goes the first song in Shucked, itself titled “Corn.” “Yes, we said corn!” The single-mindedness grinds you into submission (or grits).

This makes Shucked delightful but somewhat baffling. Step back a bit, and you can start to fathom some of the musical’s existence — but only in roundabout ways. It’s the fructose-rich byproduct of bringing a country sensibility, both in terms of music and humor, to Broadway. The show is led by a creative team that includes genuine Nashville songwriters Shane McAnally and Brandy Clark and more typical New York theater folk including book writer Robert Horn (of Tootsie) and director Jack O’Brien (of a long career that covers everything from Hairspray to lot of Tom Stoppard). In the risk-averse business of Broadway, you’d expect a show like this to be based on preexisting IP instead of carbohydrates, so it makes sense that McAnally, Clark, and Horn originally worked together on a musical built around the old Hee Haw TV series. That show stalled out, but the collaboration stuck. Shucked, now a stand-alone ethanol-fueled idea, kept growing.

There is a fine husk of a plot encasing this show, within which it germinate its corn jokes. Shucked is, broadly, a parable about city folk learning to appreciate the corn-fed wisdom of people in the heartland (and vice versa), a well-used but endearing premise for a musical. Maizy, played with Disney-princess pep by Caroline Innerbichler (if Tina Fey ever wants to make an Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt musical, she’s the one to call), strikes out from Cob County shortly before her wedding to her beau, named Beau, looking for a farming expert. She winds up in the big sophisticated city of Tampa. Shucked takes the opportunity to do an earworm of a production number about the great metropolis where “everyone’s a Tina or a Tamra” — the rhymes get increasingly forced from there — showing its clear debt to The Book of Mormon and its celebration of Orlando. (Considering Road Show’s “Boca Raton,” I look forward to musicals eventually covering every city in the state.) In Tampa, Maizy meets a slick “corn doctor” (she does not realize this means he’s a podiatrist) named Gordy, played by John Behlmann, who uses his long limbs for physical comedy like he’s a six-foot-four Gumby. Gordy’s a slick fellow in a lot of debt, so he sees an opportunity in seducing Maizy and getting access to Cob County’s seemingly valuable mineral resources. His scheme is about as threadbare as they come — Gordy may as well be trying to sell her on music lessons or a monorail — but it gets the two of them back to Cob County, where the city-versus-country dynamics really get cooking (presumably with corn oil).

Shucked’s standouts, as in so many musical comedies, are its supporting roles. McAnally and Clark have written a few lovely if unmemorable earnest songs for Maizy and Beau, but the music and book writing rev up when they turn to the characters around them. Alex Newell, playing Maizy’s corn-whiskey-distiller cousin Lulu, gets a barn- and hair-raising solo that’s designed to give Newell a chance to stop the show with their belting, which they do. Kevin Cahoon, as Beau’s even more countrified brother Peanut, delivers relentless volleys and “just stupid enough to work” one liners, e.g. “I think if you lead a horse to a pretzel, then water, he’ll drink!” The jokes are as broad as possible, and they often veer into being lewd enough to startle — there’s maybe an overreliance on references to ass play — but not too blue to turn most people off completely.

Alongside Cahoon’s character, who’s almost purely a joke-delivery vehicle, Shucked has two puckish narrators, played by Ashley D. Kelley and Grey Henson, who stroll through regularly to keep the story progressing and the humor flowing. Henson, for instance, delivers a series of comedic similes about different professions that grow more and more extravagantly set up: “But like the fast-food cashier said … ,” “Like the receptionist at the dementia clinic said … ,” “Like the proctologist with the short arms said … ,” etc. The two of them hold the hands of the more self-regardingly urbane members of the Broadway audience and lead them to drink from Shucked’s fountain of corn syrup. They wink at the goofy plot and smooth over the show’s general avoidance of politics — paying lip service, for instance, to corn’s origins as a Native American crop — to make sure everyone gets on the particular comedic frequency of Shucked’s “farm to fable.”

That tuning in to the same frequency ends up being the political point in itself. Shucked wants to bring the country together over corn — both the food and type of comedy. It sees the latter as a virtue, arguing that people of diverse backgrounds can, at least, come together over a hearty meal of phallic agricultural innuendo. That’s a fantasy as wide-eyed and naïve as Shucked’s own hero, Maizy. But, like her, it contains a few kernels of wisdom. The proof is in the (corn) pudding and the fact that everyone around you does end up laughing. It helps that Shucked’s corn is some triple-A product: The direction’s tight, there’s barely any dead air onstage, and the musical speeds toward its happy conclusion before you have room to question it. The thing is defiantly irreducible, because its aims are simple and direct. To that end, Shucked goes in one end and out the other wholly itself. Just like corn.

At Shucked, the Corniness Is as High as an Elephant’s Eye