There has been a smattering of musicals on and off Broadway which not only had stories based in rural America but also had country music and songs as part of the book and score. They include rousing shows such as Pump Boys and Dinettes, Floyd Collins, Smoke on the Mountain and A Good Old Fashioned Redneck Country Christmas: The Musical. There also have been Broadway classic hits that were adaptations either of literature or film, where the story was set in rural communities (Oklahoma, State Fair and Big River).
Then there is the fictitious setting of Cob County, where residents are satisfied to be isolated from the big tech, shiny 21st century vibes of America’s urban centers of commercialism. Their livelihood revolves entirely around corn but lately their beloved crop is dying inexplicably on the stalks, because the fields are not getting enough moisture. No one has yet found the right solution including Beau, Maizy’s boyfriend, who stubbornly resists bringing in any outside advice. But, as naive as Maizy is, having been sheltered in the home-spun comfort and familiarity of her family and friends in her bucolic paradise of corn agriculture, she will do anything to find the answer even if it means leaving the county.
In Shucked, a new musical that already is assured of its forthcoming Broadway premiere, the residents of Cob County perfectly pop every kernel of comedy, song and dance in a splendid production. With its world premiere at the Pioneer Theatre Company, the musical passes the audience bench test with flying colors. There might be a few fine brushstrokes before its Big Apple debut, but the opening performance was polished with its bustling pace, razor-sharp comedic timing and outstanding vocals that brought a lot of instantaneous audience appreciation.
The show (billed as a farm-to-fable tale) is filled with heavy hitters from Broadway and Nashville. The core creative team features original book by Tony Award-winner Robert Horn, song and lyrics by the Grammy Award-winning songwriting team of Brandy Clark and Shane McAnally, and direction by three-time Tony Award-winner Jack O’Brien.
Shucked fits nicely into the Broadway template for structuring a veritable crowd pleaser of a musical. The story line is as plain as a cornfield in Iowa or Ohio. Worried that the county’s livelihood could be gone forever, Maizy believes an outsider might have the solution they need so, despite protests from her boyfriend, Beau, and the counsel of her best friend and first cousin, Lulu, she goes to Tampa. And, there is a fabulous musical postcard about the Florida metropolis, which picks generously from a bounty of jokes that many comedians and television writers have accumulated into a taxonomy describing Tampa. This ranges from a bargain hunter’s vacation for snowbirds to its unrefined raciness and to lowbrow culture and strip clubs. So, when Maizy meets Gordy, a podiatrist who advertises as the “corn doctor,” no further explanation is needed. While Gordy is initially annoyed about interacting with a clueless bumpkin, he warms up to her, especially when he notices a particular piece of jewelry she wears. Meanwhile, Maizy genuinely believes Gordy can solve their agricultural crisis. He goes back to Cob County with her, and, of course, his presence stirs a rivalry with Maizy’s boyfriend and intended husband.
But, in Shucked, the characters are not bound as cardboard caricatures of tropes, which help nourish the constant popping of humor. The setups for songs and choreographed numbers (hat tip to Sarah O’Bleby for setting the movement for the actors) are fast-paced segues but the lyrics and the music wonderfully flesh out the characters as truly endearing and appealing. Clark and McAnally are adept at keeping the nostalgia and neo-traditional elements of country songs while giving them just the right amount of pop shine to make them appealing to the big tent of theatergoers. This includes dedicated fans of the Nashville sound as well as those who typically might not have country songs in their streaming playlists. The songs in the second act are especially well done – the standout being That’s How You Say ‘I Do’. It could become a favorite for couples selecting music for weddings.
Shucked went through a long transformation spanning the better part of a decade. At one point, it was conceived as a theatrical version of Hee Haw, a long-running televised variety show that was set in fictional Kornfield Kounty. But, the concept never coalesced into a cohesive musical, even when there were attempts to excise elements inspired by Hee Haw without losing the bulk of written material and songs that Clark and McAnally already had composed. After 2016, the idea for a country Broadway musical was revived after Horn, who won the Tony for Tootsie, took up the challenge, and O’Brien was still interested in pursuing the concept. Horn decided on an original for the book which was packed with comedy.
Its debut in 2022, coming out of a pandemic and in the midst of a bad-tempered political climate, emphasizes why timing is everything in show business, especially if one hopes for relevance and success. This is a welcome corn tonic of a stage show. One of the best takeaways from Shucked is reminding that, regardless of what we imagine and believe are the sharp irreconcilable divisions between rural and urban America, at our core (whether we live in Cob County or Tampa), we are essentially the same, looking to find and sustain our little corners of happiness.
The cast and ensemble have their own strong portfolios. There are plenty of Broadway and entertainment industry veterans. John Behlmann (Tootsie, Significant Other) is Gordy, the Tampa podiatrist a/k/a “corn doctor” who thinks he can take advantage of the unsuspecting residents in the county and settle his massive gambling debt. Kevin Cahoon (GLOW on Netflix, Monarch on Fox television) as Peanut, a farmer and brother willing to explore his own proclivities, all with an outrageous blend of corny dad jokes sprinkled with a nice spice of mischievous innuendo. Andrew Durand (Head Over Heels, War Horse) is Beau, who thinks that he alone can solve their crop problems. Caroline Innerbichler (Anna in the North American tour of Frozen) is Maizy, the ideal wide-eyed ingénue rising from the stalks of corn in her beloved county. Alex Newell (Glee on Fox, Once on This Island) is Lulu, Maizy’s cousin who undoubtedly is the county’s sharpest, smartest and sassiest observer. Rounding out the leads are the two onstage narrators: Ashley D. Kelley (Marvel’s Luke Cage and Insatiable—both on Netflix) as Storyteller 1 and Taylor Trensch (Dear Evan Hansen, Hello, Dolly!) as Storyteller 2.
Innerbichler is lovely as Maizy, with vocals that do full justice to its Nashville musical roots, as with Durand as Beau, the boyfriend. Newell’s Lulu was near show-stopping perfection, notably the first act song Independently Owned (which, incidentally would make for a fabulous reprise at the end of curtain calls). As Peanut, Cahoon finds that right balance in his comedic timing and delivery, with a hybrid style hinting at comedians such as Jim Gaffigan, Steven Wright and the late Bob Saget. Behlmann makes Gordy lovable even when he is tempted to be his slimiest. As onstage narrators, Kelley and Trensch excel in connecting to the audience with effective eye contact and small gestures, without distracting the kinetics of the stage action.
The show continues its run at Pioneer Theatre Company through Nov. 12. For tickets and more information, see the company’s website.