“The corn is as high as an elephant’s eye” – so goes the well-known lyric from Rodgers & Hammerstein’s “Oklahoma!,” which opened on Broadway exactly 80 years ago as of last Friday night, which also happened to be the night I attended the corny, corn-crazy, country-flavored new musical comedy “Shucked.”
Unlike most productions of “Oklahoma!,” “Shucked” actually does feature stalks of corn onstage.
At one point during its development, “Shucked” was being billed as an adaptation of the TV variety show “Hee Haw.” In fact, there is still a song in the second act where the men chant “yee haw, hee haw” while barn dancing with barrels.
As narrated by two random onlookers (Grey Henson and Ashley D. Kelley), “Shucked” observes how a rural Georgia community is threatened by a sudden inability to grow corn, leading the heroine (Caroline Innerbichler) to leave her pouty fiancé (Andrew Durand) and travel to Tampa, where she mistakes a “corn doctor” podiatrist (John Behlmann) for a “corn doctor” vegetable healer, which the desperate guy goes along with under the mistaken belief that the corn is surrounded by extremely valuable stones.
This is not unlike the kind of flimsy plot that dominated the pre-“Oklahoma!” musical comedies of the 1920s and 1930s, dependent on hackneyed devices such as mistaken identity, innocent romance, culture clash, get rich quick schemes, and gangsters.
The book (by Robert Horn, “Tootsie”) also relies on having Kevin Cahoon (who plays the hero’s brother) chime in with irrelevant oddball musings, such as “I just passed a huge squirrel, which is odd, because I don’t remember eating one” and “I never understood why they were called chicken tenders until I let one caress my face.” These lines might not make you laugh but can at least appreciate the crafty wordplay and shamelessness of the body humor.
The show’s fresh country-pop score is by singer-songwriters Brandy Clark (an 11-time Grammy nominee) and Shane McAnally (a three-time Grammy winner), whose credits include songs for Alicia Keys, Kelly Clarkson, Dolly Parton, and Blake Shelton. Their songs include solos of yearning and heartbreak that would not be out of place on a modern country album and relentlessly peppy and silly ensemble numbers (one of which involves corn choreography).
The standout of the cast is Alex Newell (“Glee,” “Once On This Island”), who brings down the house with roof-raising vocals and sassy strutting in a supporting role, so much so that one longs to see Newell play Effie in “Dreamgirls.”
Given the fact that “Shucked” is directed by no less than Jack O’Brien (one of the country’s most versatile and respected directors, whose many credits include Shakespeare, Stoppard, and “Hairspray”), one would think that there would have been more to “Shucked.”
One could try to read into it as a parable of community, commitment, tolerance, and so on, but “Shucked” is really just a lightweight and laborious attempt at resurrecting old-fashioned musical comedy with a country flavor and corn as high as an elephant’s eye.
“Shucked” runs at the Nederlander Theatre. 208 W. 41st St., shuckedmusical.com.