Nederlander Theatre, New York
Here’s the maize-based, country-tinged cutie pie of a musical that you never knew you needed in your life. Like that ubiquitous yellow crop, it’s sweet and surprisingly delicious. If it’s only moderately nourishing, it is deeply lovable.
Broadway, for all its rampant commercialisation, has a rare but rather lovely occasional history of pretty unlikely shows becoming solid hits. Think Urinetown, Avenue Q, Spelling Bee, Edwin Drood, Falsettos, even Spring Awakening… now add to that exclusive list a brand new musical that looks set to become this season’s sleeper hit. Some Like It Hot has a familiar film title and a stellar creative team, & Juliet has a globally adored pop playlist and London success, New York New York has Susan Stroman, Kander and Ebb, Lin-Manuel Miranda and the most NYC-synonymous title song ever, Kimberly Akimbo has a beloved Tony-winning star, a fine pedigree and arrives on the main stem armed with the kind of Off-Broadway reviews from its initial run that other shows can only dream about. Shucked has… corn.
I’m being slightly disingenuous here: first seen in a try out season in Salt Lake City of all places, Shucked is helmed by Tony winner Jack O’Brien, a director at home with everything from opera to Shakespeare but whose track record with Broadway musicals (Hairspray, The Full Monty, Dirty Rotten Scoundrels) proves that he really knows what he’s doing with the great American theatrical art form. Also, while the names of songwriters Brandy Clark and Shane McAnally may not mean much to those of us who obsess over Sondheim, Schwartz, Jason Robert Brown etc, they are record-breaking award-winners within the sphere of country music. Book writer Robert Horn creates for TV and theatre, and also has a Tony to his credit. So, yes, Shucked has rather more going for it than just ubiquitous yellow ads all over the city and press featuring heinous made-up pull quotes.
To be honest, if it’s an evening of laugh-yourself-silly fun, catchy tunes, inspired lunacy and bona fide triple threat star turn performances that you’re after, it doesn’t get much better than this. Shucked sets expectations low – a simplistic plot about a corn-run isolated community (think Brigadoon with Deep South accents) whose existence is threatened when their all-important crops of the yellow vegetable start to catastrophically fail, that sends an innocent off to the big city (Tampa, FL!) to seek help, is set up with groan worthy jokes – but then proceeds to elevate and upstage itself at every turn.
O’Brien‘s production is busy but focused, and succeeds in creating a world where backwoods charm co-habits with showbiz ingenuity to irresistible effect. Sarah O’Gleby’s terrific choreography, homaging a plethora of more high brow shows and staging tropes almost none of which are as much fun as Shucked, is a major factor in this.
So is Scott Pask’s attractive corn-festooned barn set, and Japhy Weideman’s colourful, atmospheric lighting. John Shivers’ sound design has a bell-like clarity that ensures that the only thing that stops us catching the next zinger is the mirthful response of other audience members. The jokes come so thick and fast that probably the only way to ensure that you experience all of them is by seeing Shucked more than once, which frankly would be no hardship.
Clark and McAnally’s score may slightly play second fiddle to the belly laughing joy of Horn’s script, but it is packed with melody, infusing the country genre with a roaring theatricality. Some of the individual numbers really hit home: the young female lead (called Maizy because, well, of course she is, portrayed by Broadway debutante Caroline Innerbichler who’s the nearest thing imaginable to sunshine in human form) gets a pair of cracking solos in the ‘I want’ song “Walls” and the wistful “Maybe Love” while her love interest Beau (clarion-voiced Andrew Durand) has a rousing cri de cœur in the exciting “Somebody Will”. Each act has an authentic showstopper, with Alex Newell as self-made local businesswoman providing the stuff of musical memories with the gloriously ‘eff you’ “Independently Owned” and in the second half the entire male cast cutting loose on the competitive, rollicking “Best Man Wins”. What’s perhaps most surprising is how much of an emotional wallop such an upbeat set of songs can carry.
That’s undoubtedly due to the characters, all written and performed with broad but joyful strokes, but about whom it becomes impossible not to care. Innerbichler, Durand and Newell are utterly fabulous but there’s also superb work from John Behlmann as the city slicker set on exploiting the Cob County dwellers and Broadway veteran Kevin Cahoon, uproarious as a philosophical but not necessarily all that bright farmhand. The whole tall tale is overseen by a pair of witty narrators, winningly played by Grey Henson, basically warming over his camp but captivating turn from 2018’s Mean Girls musical, and delightful newcomer Ashley D Kelley.
If exchanges like “what’s happening brother?” “I just passed a huge squirrel…..which is odd cos I don’t remember eating one” or “you can put sugar on horseshit but that don’t make it a brownie” “NOW you tell me?!” make you wince rather than guffaw then maybe Shucked isn’t for you. The humour makes up in relentlessness for what it lacks in sophistication, but I personally found it repeatedly impossible to stop laughing, and that certainly seemed true of almost everybody around me. Stir in a tractor-trailer load of heart, several barrels of good will, and a wealth of soul-stirring music, and you have a very appealing night out, the sort of entertainment that sends you out into the night floating on air and with a big soppy grin on your face.
Sometimes a casual shuck really can turn into true love.