Wednesday, April 26, 2023

REVIEW: Shucked

Review of the Saturday, April 22, 2023 matinee performance at the Nederlander Theatre in New York City. Starring John Behlmann, Kevin Cahoon, Andrew Durand, Grey Henson, Caroline Innerbichler, Ashley D. Kelley and Alex Newell. Book by Robert Horn. Music and lyrics by Brandy Clark and Shane McAnally. Scenic design by Scott Pask. Costume design by Tilly Grimes. Lighting design by Japhy Weideman. Sound design by John Shivers. Choreography by Sarah O'Gleby. Direction by Jack O'Brien. 2 hours, 15 minutes including one intermission.

Grade: A+

I can't remember the last time a Broadway show was as good as its hype. Shucked, a completely original musical to boot, is that rarest commodity - it is even better than the hype! Leave your "serious musical" hat at home and come to the Nederlander Theatre with an open mind and heart. You'll laugh, tap your toes, and feel your heart fill with joy. The endorphin rush will last - trust me, it's been five days and I'm still smiling! 

The score, by Broadway newbies and country music royalty Brandy Clark and Shane McAnally is an absolute delight, equal parts twang and Broadway pizzazz. I've often said that I thought country lyrics and Broadway lyrics were very similar: both are driven by character and story. Looks like I was right! They know their way around a big, splashy production number - with the opening number, "Corn," a rousing delight, and the uproarious ode to Tampa, "Travelin' Song," standing out. Both are equally adept at character songs: "Independently Owned" the viral hit (my new go-to shower song), "Walls," and "Somebody Will" are three numbers that have wit and insight and a ton of heart for the characters of Lulu, Maizy and Beau, respectively.

Speaking of heart, for me that's what makes Robert Horn's brilliantly hilarious book really work. Oh, yes, the jokes are plentiful, ranging from groan-worthy dad jokes, to clever puns and pithy zingers. Indeed, several jokes stop the show. But it's the unapologetic heart that Shucked proudly wears on its husks sleeves that grounds the piece. Horn makes sure we laugh with the characters, not at them. And we care - I distinctly remember thinking to myself, "I am really invested in this corn dilemma!" And if you really have to have depth, there's no shortage of commentary on everything from politics to environmental concerns to women's rights, always with a laugh accompanying each, uh, kernel of truth.

If the old TV show Hee Haw had a baby in 2023, it would look like Scott Pask's barn set, with rustic charm and wit to spare. The playing spaces allow for a wide variety of locales, and split-second changes with just a row of corn or two to mix things up. Japhy Weideman's magical color pallet lights the proceedings with charm and certainly adds to the emotional moments, and Tilly Grimes' delightful costumes bring denim and flannel to a whole new level! Her costumes that parody Floridians are as silly as they are on point. The sound design by John Shivers is a rare thing, indeed. No tricks, just solid design that insures that every single syllable of every joke and song is heard - even over screams of laughter.

The cleverness of the whole affair is held together by the sharp as a tack musical staging of choreographer
Sarah O'Gleby and director Jack O'Brien. Ms. O'Gleby is happily on the same page with the book and score, including some tricky long board and rolling barrel dance sequences. Mr. O'Brien's work here is reminiscent of what he did with Hairspray, with inventive staging and clever visual humor. Most importantly, while he allows the cast a generous amount of leeway in milking every laugh, he has taken great care to keep everything under control. He knows just when to cut the hilarity and allow the heart to shine through. It's a delicate balance, and it is handled brilliantly.

The citizens of Cob County, where this little fable takes place, are a game group. From boot-stompin' to barrel rollin' and a generous amount of good ol' fashioned Broadway hoofin', the eight member ensemble are all aces. It is clear that they are having as much fun as we are. They are the perfect support for the principal cast.

As our narrators and tour guides, Ashley D. Kelley (Storyteller #1 - a great Broadway debut) and Grey Henson (Storyteller #2), are a riot, delivering eye-rolling one-liners and plot details with equal zeal. When they let go playing a variety of smaller roles (sometimes two or more at a time - each), you can see the twinkle in their eyes all the way back in the rear orchestra! 

Broadway debutante Caroline Innerbichler is giving the sweetest leading lady role of the season with the finesse of a seasoned pro. She navigates each twist and turn of her anything-but-typical fish-out-of-water plot line, singing like a bird, and deftly handling the straight man duties of this comedy. She imbues Maizy with a wide-eyed wonder and a smart backbone. Her co-star, the, um, amazingly fit (it's a plot point, honest!) Andrew Durand, is an impressive mixture of hayseed, masculinity, and endearing warmth. His big act one solo, "Somebody Will," stops the show, and makes us root instantly for his character, Beau. His chief nemesis, Gordy, a dim, but conniving city fella is played by John Behlmann, a lanky giant of a man, who easily (and comically) handles the physical comedy demands of the role expertly. I'd say more, but his role is integral to the surprises of the show, and I won't spoil it for you!

Kevin Cahoon has returned to Broadway after a more than 15 year absence in the role of a lifetime: Peanut, Beau's cornfield smart, otherwise dim brother. His comic gifts are superior. I can't imagine anyone else delivering pun after pun, observation after observation, with as much skill as Mr. Cahoon does. It is entirely to his credit that each (intentionally) bad joke lands with both a groan and a laugh of delight. Sure, not all the jokes are created equally, but I feel sure that in lesser hands, Peanut would not be welcomed by audiences as he currently is.

Before we saw it, word on the street was that Alex Newell's turn as whiskey entrepreneur Lulu was stealing the show. As it turns out, he does and he doesn't - and that is 100% a sincere compliment. Written as it is, Lulu is always going to be a crowd-pleaser. She's quick-witted, with a savvy understanding of how the world works, a tight hold on her own life, and a generous heart that envelopes all of Cob County. But what makes Newell's take on the role so wonderful is the unfettered joy that exudes out of him, as he creates this wonderful woman. That joy is infectious, and we hang on Lulu's every word and gesture. And when she unleashes the already classic "Independently Owned," one experiences that elusive moment of Broadway nirvana. As I said though, Alex doesn't steal the show because this is a generous performance that is as much a tour de force as it is an integral part of the company. 

Shucked knows what it is, and delivers from the first line to the final bow. Would that other musicals were as aware. This is one show you don't want to miss. 

📸: M. Murphy & E. Zimmerman

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