Puns, the pundit John Oliver has said, are not merely the lowest form of humor but “the lowest form of human behavior.” The academy agrees. In the 1600s, no less a literary luminary than John Dryden denounced lowbrow verbal amusements that “torture one poor word ten thousand ways.”
You may know how that one poor word feels after seeing “Shucked,” the anomalous Broadway musical about corn that opened on Tuesday at the Nederlander Theater. For more than two hours, it pelts you with piffle so egregious — not just puns but also dad jokes, double entendres and booby-trapped one-liners — that, forced into submission, you eventually give in.
Many of the puns, which I will not try to top, are of course about corn, from the title on down. The story is after all set in the fictional Cob County, where the locals, long isolated from the rest of the world by a wall of “cornrows,” live in the perfect “hominy” of entrenched dopiness. Or at least they do until the corn, like some of those puns, starts dying.
That’s when our plucky heroine — obviously called Maizy (Caroline Innerbichler) — dares to seek help in the great beyond. Jeopardizing her imminent wedding to the studly but xenophobic Beau (Andrew Durand) and ignoring the advice of her cousin, Lulu (Alex Newell), she heads to Tampa. In that decadent metropolis, she seeks agricultural assistance from Gordy, a con man posing as a podiatrist she misconstrues as a “corn doctor.” Being grifty, Gordy (John Behlmann) returns to Cob County with Maizy not so much to cure the crop as to reap the wealth he thinks lies beneath it: a vast outcropping of precious gemstone.
Like Gordy, the audience may have difficulty extracting the gems from the corn. For one thing, there is so much corn to process. It’s not just the relentless puns. The musical’s book, by Robert Horn, embracing what one of the genial songs (by the country music team of Brandy Clark and Shane McAnally) calls “cornography,” trades on all kinds of trite wisdom and low humor.
Low but hard not to laugh at. Beau’s brother, Peanut (Kevin Cahoon), a fraction of a half-wit, fires off bullet lists of random jokes for no apparent reason. Many adhere to the formula X + Y = Pun Z. (“Like the personal trainer said to the lazy client: This is not working out.”) Others sound as if the cerebral comedian Steven Wright had been lobotomized by the rubes of “Hee Haw.” “I think if you can pick up your dog with one hand,” Peanut twangs, “you own a cat.”
More on N.Y.C. Theater, Music and Dance This Spring
- Moving Uptown: After starring in a production of “The Sign in Sidney Brustein’s Window,” a long-overlooked Lorraine Hansberry play at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, Oscar Isaac and Rachel Brosnahan are bringing the show to Broadway for a surprise run.
- Unstoppable: John Kander, the 96-year-old composer of “Chicago” and “Cabaret,” is making a brand-new start of it with “New York, New York,” his 16th Broadway musical.
- Sources of Inspiration: Michael R. Jackson’s new play, “White Girl in Danger,” is rooted in soap opera themes and tropes, romance novels, Lifetime movies and Black girl groups
- Humor That Hangs by a Thread: The slapstick Broadway comedy “Peter Pan Goes Wrong” is full of daring sequences. What does it take to pull them off? Countless rehearsals (and bruises).
“Hee Haw” is relevant here. “Shucked” was originally developed as a stage version of that television variety hour, first broadcast in 1969. Set in Kornfield Kounty, it featured country music and down-home comedy at a time when rural America was becoming ripe for spoofing by urban elites such as Eva Gabor. And though the rights holders eventually backed out of the venture, and all but three of the songs were discarded, the interbred DNA of Broadway and the boonies lives on.
It makes for a strange hybrid. Somehow framed as a fable of both communal cohesion and openness to strangers, “Shucked” has very little actual plot, and what there is, much of it borrowed from “The Music Man,” is rickety. (The effect is echoed by Scott Pask’s lopsided barn of a set.) Minor love complications, as Lulu falls for Gordy even though Gordy is romancing Maizy, are only as knotty as noodles. And using a pair of winky storytellers (Grey Henson and Ashley D. Kelley) to speed past potholes does not exactly make for cutting-edge dramaturgy.
Evidently the authors — and the director, Jack O’Brien — meant to glue the show together with groaners, a gutsy if not entirely successful move. As the jokes wear down your resistance, they also wear you out. Nor do they provide the narrative structure that typically gives characters in musicals reasons to sing. Maizy and Beau have some nicely turned, strongly hooked numbers, and Innerbichler and Durand perform them well, but we aren’t invested in them enough to care. With their needs so flat, the extra dimension of song seems like overkill.
Oddly, it’s only the secondary characters who are complicated enough for music — well, really just one of them. Newell turns Lulu, a whiskey distiller and freelance hell-raiser, into a full-blown comic creation, which is to say a serious person who puts comedy to a purpose. If her dialogue is wittier than the others’, that’s partly because it engages the story, however thin, but mostly because of the intentionality of Newell’s delivery. Flirting with but also threatening Gordy, Lulu says, “The last thing I wanna do is hurt you.” She pauses and locks eyes with him. “So we’ll get to that.”
Lulu also gets the show’s best song, a barnburner of a feminist anthem called “Independently Owned.” (“No disrespect to Miss Tammy Wynette,” she sings, “I can’t stand by my man, he’ll have to stand by me.”) Newell — having absorbed the whole vocal thesaurus of diva riffs, shouts, gurgles and growls — stops the show. But after the ovation, I found myself wondering what such a huge talent could do with a more commensurate role, like Effie in “Dreamgirls.”
Or for that matter what “Shucked” might have done if it had set its sights a bit higher. O’Brien’s staging is deliberately old-fashioned, filled with simple effects and modest outlays meant to match the content but that somehow undershoot the mark. Tilly Grimes’s costumes, though apt enough, look as if they were thrifted. Sarah O’Gleby’s choreography reaches its zenith right at the start, and not even with humans: A mini-kickline of plastic corncob Rockettes slays.
Still, with all its fake unsophistication, “Shucked” is what we’ve got, and in a Broadway musical season highlighted by an antisemitic lynching, a murderous barber and a dying 16-year-old, some amusing counterprogramming is probably healthy. You may even find its final moment moving, as the paradox of separation and inclusion is resolved in a lovely flash.
Just don’t expect intellectual nourishment; forgive me, I’m breaking my promise, but it’s mostly empty calories you’ll find in this sweet, down-market cornucopia.
At the Nederlander Theater, Manhattan; shuckedmusical.com. Running time: 2 hours 15 minutes.