A little kindness goes a very long way. How else to explain the goodwill engendered by Shucked, a musical with neither a high-aiming premise nor sense of humor? One thing’s for sure: this low-brow tale of a fictional small town has a big heart.
Shucked is set in the fictional Cob County, which nobody ever leaves, and which nobody new enters. We’re told, by a pair of narrators known as “Storytellers” (Grey Henson and Ashley D. Kelley) that they’re not exclusive (although at one point, they balk at the mention of the Episcopalian religion); it’s just the way it is.
But then comes the day the corn died. For no reason that any of Cob’s inhabitants can figure out, the crop stops growing, causing a panic around town. Despite her upcoming wedding to childhood sweetheart Beau (Andrew Durand) The optimistic, resourceful Maizy (Caroline Innerbichler, making an excellent Broadway debut), finds the resolve to leave town and find an answer. She lands in, of all places, Tampa, where she connects with Gordy (John Behlmann), a handsome but oily con man posing as a podiatrist and bedding unsuspecting women on the side. She believes can solve the problem because of his sign advertising his services as a “corn doctor.”
Gordy offers to help, but only because he has sized her up as a mark; he is deeply in debt to gangsters and believes that the precious stones adorning her bracelet, which she says are plentiful throughout Cob County, will solve his financial problems. Maizy brings him back to Cob County, where most people, including Beau and Maizy’s cousin Lulu (Alex Newell), distrust him. Quicker than you can say cornpone, a triangle – nay, a quadrilateral – emerges.
Shucked has an origin story of its own. It was initially devised as a musical adaptation of the 1960s southern-fried yuk-fest Hee Haw, but when plans (and money) fell through, the creative team, including veteran director Jack O’Brien, librettist Robert Horn, and musical team of Brandy Clark and Shane McAnally, soldiered on and repurposed their IP as an original musical.
The result, though, is a bipolar one. Horn (who won a Tony for adapting Tootsie into a musical), comes from the world of sitcoms, and has threaded the entirety of the show with a constant flow of puns and punchlines, usually delivered by the Storytellers, though some come courtesy of show MVP Kevin Cahoon as Beau’s simple-minded brother. A few examples: “I think if you lead a horse to a pretzel, then water, he’ll drink!” “It was an unsolved mystery…which are really just mysteries.” Other characters, like Lulu get in on the act as well, describing Gordy as a “tall, handsome, teeth so white they could join a country club.” Shucked is the kind of show that will have its Storytellers describe itself as “farm to fable,” then pause to laugh at its own low-brow cleverness.
That kind of constant mugging is a good fit for the show’s initial Hee Haw template for sure, but it doesn’t jive with the show’s sweet country-tinged score, best embodied by a pair of songs sung by the capable Durand: “I’ll Be Okay” and “Somebody Will.” The songs are earnest, honest, and straightforward in ways that Horn’s naughty wordplay is not, leading to a sense of creative whiplash. It’s an odd creative mashup of book and score that feels more like an assigned school project than an alchemical match.
Another problem falls more squarely on Horn’s shoulders, as he is the one who shaped the overall development of Shucked, a show that doesn’t seem to know whose story it wants to tell. Maizy appears to be the de facto lead, but we never get to know her too well – with no “I Want” or “This Is Who I Am” song, we get no sense of her inner longing. She mostly exists to engineer the plot and lead us to our Harold Hill-like villain, Gordy – but he’s actually the character who changes the most over the course of the show. He’s actually the show’s lead, but (and despite yet another heroic turn from Behlman, a past colleague of Horn’s in Tootsie), no one seems to realize it.
Horn commits an even rarer story infraction, introducing elements only to ignore them. Having established Gordy as the show’s go-to villain, eventually the audience (but not the characters) learn that his debt issues have gone away and that the purple rocks are actually worthless. This information never comes back or proves to be relevant. In fact, right from the beginning, the Storytellers advise us to pay attention to a couple of props, saying they will be important – and then never telling us why later on. The Storytellers themselves, meanwhile, fade into the background in the second act, no longer guiding the action along or making ribald commentary on it, just watching the scenes from spots within Scott Pasks’ multi-level wooden barn single set. (Another dramaturgical nit: if the sexually liberated Lulu has had many suitors, and no one ever enters or exits Cob County, where are all of these men?)
Let’s give credit where it’s due: choreographer Sarah O’Gleby doesn’t just fashion predictable line dancing in Cob County, she also constructs a velocity-defying number for the male members of the cast (even Henson, oddly, participates), with the men wheeling each other on a few whiskey barrel in constant motion. And both in Tilly Grimes’s country costumes and Jason Howland’s music direction is solid. Shucked showers plenty of theatrical pixie dust on the audience; Cob Country seems like a positivity-radiating place to visit. But I couldn’t help wishing that I was at a show that had a better sense of who it was and how it could get there.