Fine cast elevates cornpone humor of PTC’s “Shucked”

Sun Oct 30, 2022 at 10:12 am
By Catherine Reese Newton

Take a passel of musical-theater stock characters (the ingenue, the con artist who woos her, the hometown boy waiting on the sidelines, the wise-cracking sidekicks and the all-knowing narrators), give them a score of soaring pop-country hits waiting to happen, and you have Shucked, the latest Broadway hopeful to make its world premiere at Salt Lake City’s Pioneer Theatre Company.

Is the plot predictable? Yes. Are the jokes unapologetically corny and occasionally a little smutty? Oh yes. Will you have a good time anyway? Also yes.

Shucked, which opened Friday, has solid credentials: music and lyrics by Nashville hitmakers Brandy Clark and Shane McAnally, who have written for the likes of Kacey Musgraves, Keith Urban and Reba McEntire; and a book by Robert Horn, best known for his work on the Broadway adaptation of Tootsie. The show is directed by three-time Tony winner Jack O’Brien.

The story is set in Cob County, where the folks live “in perfect hominy” until their cash crop (you can guess what that is) mysteriously starts to dry up. Setting off for the big city of Tampa in search of help, Maizy (“named, obviously, after her grandmother”) becomes smitten with a corn doctor—sorry, podiatrist—and brings him back to town. Maizy’s longtime beau, Beau, is devastated; her worldly cousin, Lulu, is instantly suspicious of the suave newcomer.

It isn’t always easy to tell how the creators feel about the characters—are we meant to be laughing at or with these bumpkins? But, thanks largely to the skill and charm of the actors, the scale tips toward “with them” around the middle of the second act.

Caroline Innerbichler (Maizy), Andrew Durand (Beau) and Alex Newell (Lulu) are the vocal standouts in this production. 

Innerbichler plays Maizy with abundant spunk and a well-placed twang—reminiscent of Carrie Underwood, if Underwood could act. Likewise, Durand could easily pass for a country superstar as his golden tenor voice soars effortlessly to the literal and figurative rafters. Newell, by contrast, is a bluesy diva whose voice nearly blows the roof off the house. Incongruous as these styles may seem, the duet between Beau and Lulu works surprisingly well.

Strong performances also come from John Behlmann as Gordy, the smarmy podiatrist who fears disappointing his criminal family; Kevin Cahoon, whose deadpan delivery earns most of the evening’s laughs in the role of Peanut, the Noel Coward of the corn patch; and Ashley D. Kelley and Taylor Trensch as the snappy but subversive storytellers.

Sarah O’Gleby’s choreography, highlighted by the inventive use of whiskey barrels and large rocks, raises the professionalism of this production, as does Scott Pask’s charmingly skewed set.

The seeds of Shucked have been germinating for nearly a decade, and the show in its present form seems close to reaching the creators’ goal of a Broadway run. Judging from the reviews of Moonshine: That Hee Haw Musical, the same team’s previous incarnation of Shucked that had a short run in Dallas in 2015, the version now playing at Pioneer is a little less stereotype-driven and a lot less lewd.

Friday’s audience laughed at every one-liner and sight gag, which is impressive given that the jokes in this show fly forth with the speed of kernels in a corn popper. It’s a tribute to the cast’s comic timing that the pauses for laughs never dragged down the pace on opening night. And even if jokes like “I just passed a big squirrel—which is surprising considering I don’t remember eatin’ a squirrel” or “I remember building sand castles with Grandma—until Grandpa took the urn away” aren’t your style, the outstanding cast is likely to win you over.

Shucked plays through November 12 at Pioneer Theatre Company.

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