A kid’s science fair is usually more an exhibition of the tried-and-true than innovation. Among the bubbling papier-mâché volcanoes and electrode-pierced spuds, one can often find at least a couple of junior Einsteins postulating about alternative fuel sources or attempting to disprove supposedly fundamental laws of the universe. While humanity occasionally needs to have its collective mind stretched to the breaking point, there is, of course, also some type of comfort in the unchallengingly familiar, especially when regurgitated with a sweet-natured lack of ambition.
The new musical Shucked is the theatrical version of the latter, a solidly second-rate effort whose bonhomie might even make it ribbon-worthy come awards time thanks to the current Broadway season’s underwhelming original output (Bad Cinderella, indeed). A self-styled fable, Shucked is a fish-out-of-water story that imparts its homespun lessons as if rotely checking off ones its creators learned from the flyover folks in classic musicals like Oklahoma! and The Music Man. If all this putative wisdom doesn’t end up anywhere particularly enlightening, no matter. Despite early indications to the contrary, at its heart, Shucked is about circling back, not moving forward.
Once upon a time, the wider world didn’t matter to the blissfully sequestered denizens of Cobb County whose punny existences were enveloped by a mysterious wall of corn straight out of the Twilight Zone, if Rod Serling had completely exhausted every other storytelling idea. Pay no attention to how farming, commerce, or genetics may have worked in this secluded, single-staple community. All you need to know is that the corn is now dying, possibly because, as Nashville songwriters Brandy Clark and Shane McAnally’s opening second-act number cheerfully insinuates, everyone in Cobb County spends more time drinking it than, say, learning about crop rotation.
When not fake giggling or feigning embarrassment after delivering one of book writer Robert Horn’s risqué, meta, or intentionally groan-inducing jokes, an endearing pair of anonymous narrators (Ashley D. Kelley and Grey Henson) are given the phantom responsibility of adding dimensions to what turns out to be a collection of dimensionless characters. Initially, though, our heroine Maizy (Caroline Innerbichler) does appear genuinely determined to exceed the depth and gumption of her cereal-grain namesake. Presumably hoping to save the others in Cobb County from having to take an agricultural science course, Maizy heads off to the big city to do the one thing her friends and family dread most: ask for help.
Innocent and ignorant, Maizy carries her troubles to the mean streets of Tampa Bay, a potentially surreal choice that Clark and McAnally turn into comic straw with stale lyrics about old people and plastic surgery. Horn doesn’t fare any better, adding bunions and dementia to the mix. One wishes Clark, McAnally, and Horn had taken an inspirational trip to the Salvador Dalí museum, located about a half hour from Tampa Bay, but that would have demanded a genuine commitment to upending the audience’s expectations or, you know, actually learning something about Tampa Bay.
While implausibly walking around the pedestrian-unfriendly metropolis, Maizy encounters a knockoff Damon Runyon character, the grifting Gordy (John Behlmann), who deviously woos the proudly chaste young woman away from her hometown fiancé, the unhappily chaste and aptly-named cipher Beau (Andrew Durand). Gordy’s romantic duplicity is spurred by trite underworld shenanigans and an exceptionally forgettable MacGuffin that our narrating duo valiantly remind us not to forget. Returning to Cobb County with her new, scheming man in tow, Maizy sparks a love triangle that soon gets even more complicated when Gordy and Lulu (Alex Newell), Maizy’s bawdy, whiskey-distilling cousin, lock eyes on each other.
Originally intended to be an adaptation of Hee Haw, the decades-long TV variety program that featured performances from country music greats like Charley Pride, Loretta Lynn, and Johnny Cash intercut with bumpkin humor, Shucked retains obvious examples of this creative spirit but only a few glimpses of its quality. Those better moments are almost entirely courtesy of Horn, a former sitcom writer who never lets plot or character development take precedence over low-brow wordplay. Most of Horn’s best, and worst, one-liners come from Beau’s brother Peanut (Kevin Cahoon), a stereotypical hayseed who also expresses the show’s most salient religiosity. Whether a stealthy satirist or not, Horn is definitely operating at cross-purposes with Clarke and McAnally’s bland sentimentalism.
In addition to a surfeit of approximate rhymes, the score for Shucked includes a paean to corn and a reprise of the following ready-for-Hallmark advice: “maybe love is like a seed/a little sun is all you need.” Meanwhile, Horn blithely salts the earth with acerbic observations about how “marriage is simply two people coming together to solve problems they didn’t have before.” Foregoing any accountability for this philosophical inconsistency, director Jack O’Brien instead attempts to cover for it with turbo-charged pacing that not only sacrifices thought for an admittedly infectious energy but also, as a part of this devil’s bargain, undermines the comic timing necessary for a lot of Horn’s jokes to land properly.
But the amiable cast never falters, even when the laughs do or the score becomes more saccharine than corn syrup. The cast is adept, too, at executing Sarah O’Gleby’s inventive choreography on scenic designer Scott Pask’s ramshackle barn of a set. Particularly enchanting is a rolling barrel dance that Durand daringly pulls off with impressive grace. It’s just too bad that this delightful surprise isn’t accompanied by many others.
Shucked (through January 14, 2024)
Nederlander Theatre, 208 West 41st Street, in Manhattan
For tickets, call 212-921-8000 or visit http://www.shuckedmusical.com
Running time: two hours and 15 minutes including an intermission