Robert Horn shows off his TV pedigree (“Designing Women,” “Living Single”) by writing more puns, wordplays, and one-liners for his “Shucked” than you’ll find in all the other new Broadway musicals combined. Many of these hoary bons mots are of a scatological nature that wouldn’t make it by the network censor, and in the case of one gay character (Kevin Cahoon performs a shotgun wedding between Gomer Pyle and Barney Fife), there is an anal fixation that has him contemplating stuffing everything from a thermometer to a Christmas tree, and maybe even a crystal ball, up his butt. “Shucked,” that often funny and occasionally exhausting new musical, opened Tuesday at Broadway’s Nederlander Theatre.
Horn performed similar duties for his last Broadway outing, “Tootsie,” which won him the Tony for best book of a musical. On that show, he substituted a lot of the movie’s better dialogue with equally amusing new material. With “Shucked,” he goes further to deliver that most rare of stage animals: a new musical that features an original book.
How to describe the plot of “Shucked”?
Think of “The Music Man” if it were coupled with “Sex and the City 2,” the dreadful movie sequel that hinges on Carrie Bradshaw breaking her marriage vows to Big by kissing an old boyfriend, Aidan, in Abu Dhabi. Now, substitute Tampa, Florida, for the Middle East, and imagine Sarah Jessica Parker as a rube named Maisy who comes to the Big City to find an agriculturist (a word that is never mentioned in “Shucked”) who can save the blighted corn fields of her small town in Cobb County, USA. Maisy (Caroline Innerbichler, making an impressive Broadway debut) lets a podiatrist con artist (the amusingly oily John Behlman) kiss her despite having a fiancé (the sympathetically dim Andrew Durand) back home, and she returns to Cobb County to save the summer’s corn crop and possibly marry the foot doctor.
While the avalanche of jokes helps to goose up the slow-moving first act, Horn’s best accomplishment as a book writer is the character of Maisy. Like every other young female heroine of a new musical, she is spunky, outspoken and independent. Unlike the leading ladies of “Bad Cinderella,” “& Juliet” and “Some Like It Hot,” she is also dumber than the dirt in which corn grows, having mixed up the corns on your feet with the corn you eat. It’s a little flaw Maisy shares with nearly everyone else in Cobb County, and Innerbichler manages to make it the character’s most endearing quality.
Like the best of Oscar Hammerstein II’s books, Horn gives us not one but two love stories. Which brings us to Maisy’s very smart cousin, Lulu, the one person in town who can count to 10 without using her fingers.
How to describe Alex Newell in the role of Lulu?
She delivers the show-stopping anthem “Independently Owned,” about her corn whiskey distillery and her desire to remain a single woman. Decibel-wise, the song is reminiscent of “You Oughta Know” from “Jagged Little Pill” that won Lauren Patten a Tony Award but reminded me of the scene in “Alien” where the creature from outer space erupts from an astronaut’s stomach. “Independently Owned” could also be a Tony ticket for Newell, but it reminded me of the Flonase commercial where the people in a public park are terrorized by an allergy attack.
Jack O’Brien directs with a sure-hand, but even his vast stage expertise (three Tonys to his credit) can’t paste over a major gap between the book by Horn and the score by Brandy Clark and Shane McAnally. The two Grammy Award-winning songwriters have written some lovely country-western tunes, the best of them being “I’ll Be Okay,” sung with a twang in his heart by Durand. There’s a nice role-reversal here, since it’s the kind of tune that’s generally sung by the female lead who has been mistreated by some male sexist pig. What’s not communicated here or anywhere else in the many “Shucked” songs is Horn’s delight in jerking around the English language. Did he and the two songwriters ever meet to hear what the other was doing? The closest thing to a joke in any of the songs is the line “Yeah we love Jesus/But we drink a little” from the song “We Love Jesus.” At their most amusing, Clark and McAnally have more in common with the gentle humor of Meredith Willson than the far more rambunctious nonsense that Horn delivers. This constant switching of gears between the songs and the joke-filled dialogue slows down the narrative, making “Shucked” seem a lot longer than its two and twenty minutes with intermission. There’s also a pair of narrators (Grey Henson and Ashley D. Kelley) who are somewhat less adorable than they think they are.
Far more riveting is Scott Pask’s awesome set design, which places the entire show in a barn. It’s a skewed gravity-defying structure that inspires immediate awe and then real concern. When is this damned thing going to collapse?