Arts & Culture

Hold On to Your Niblets: Broadway’s Shucked Offers a Cornfield of Laughs and Southern Stars

Why everyone’s raving about the Tony-nominated musical sensation

Photo: Matthew Murphy & Evan Zimmerman

Ashley D. Kelley and Grey Henson in Shucked.

Shucked shook the New York City theater snob right out of me. By intermission, I’d thrown my head back, laughed, and shouted “Oh lawd!” so many times, I checked my program to make sure I wasn’t at a Hee Haw revival. This show, which only opened in early April and already racked up nine Tony nominations, has jokes. Doctor jokes, dead mama jokes, dead grandmama jokes, repressed homosexual jokes, marriage jokes, sex jokes, and jokes for the john. There are more dick jokes than a Richard Nixon roast. The action takes place in fictional “Cob County,” and there are so many corn puns like that, my audience groaned like a gristmill.

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And then there’s Peanut, played by the Houston native Kevin Cahoon, who steals more scenes than a dummy on Jeff Dunham’s lap. This man can mug. He is a professional laugh pauser and a pocket bible philosopher.

He says to his brother, “Remember when we cut down a Christmas tree and you asked me if I was going to put it up myself? And I said, ‘Well, I was planning to put it up in the living room.’”

He says, “Remember when we were kids making sandcastles with gramma? And then grandpa took her urn away.”

He says, “I think the first person to see a sunset said, ‘Well, that ain’t good!’”

He says, “If I had a crystal ball, I’d probably walk real different.”

I may be paraphrasing these jokes, but what makes a good joke is the want to retell it. I’ve been quoting Shucked all weekend.

I’ve said, “Grandma’s teeth were so crooked, she could eat an apple while wearing a catcher’s mask.”

I’ve said, “That whiskey’s stronger than a single mom raising five kids on a teacher’s salary.”

I’ve said, “I may have lost my virginity, but I still have the box it came in.”

I’ve said, “Opinions are like orgasms: The only one that matters is mine, and I don’t care if you have one or not.”

Don’t worry, I’m not spoiling the show. The book writer, Robert Horn (who wrote the book for the musical version of Tootsie, my favorite movie, and wrote for Designing Women, my favorite TV series), has more jokes in his bag than Orville Redenbacher has kernels. Pop, pop, pop! The jokes don’t stop. Give this man another Tony.

photo: Matthew Murphy & Evan Zimmerman
Alex Newell, Caroline Innerbichler, Kevin Cahoon, and Andrew Durand.

So, what’s Shucked about? What any happy-go-lucky musical is about. Boy loses girl, boy gets girl. A hero goes on a journey (to the “big city” of Tampa) and a stranger comes to town. There’s a problem to be solved and it is, in an hour and fifty minutes. Of course, there’s a happy ending. It’s corn! It’s the farmer in the vicinity of the Delacorte Theatre, not the demon barber of Fleet Street.

photo: Emilio Madrid
Grey Henson.

There are two Storytellers, one of whom, the Macon, Georgia, native Grey Henson, I remember as the “almost too gay to function” friend of Janis Ian in the musical of Mean Girls. My eyes were drawn to him then and they’re drawn to him now. He looks so tickled that we’re tickled at the endless string of dad jokes he’s delivering. Before one song-and-dance routine performed by all the men in the cast atop two-by-fours on rolling barrels, he confesses to us: “I like this number so much, I’m going to join in. Pray for me.”

Midway through the first act, the main thing I’d noticed about the lead actor, the Marietta, Georgia–born Andrew Durand, were his jeans (costume designer Tilly Grimes should have been nominated for those jeans, which looked to me to be patchworked vintage denim handstitched with sashiko, an exquisite Japanese embroidery). But then Durand sang “Somebody Will,” a personal come-to-Jesus anthem about how if his girlfriend doesn’t appreciate him for being a well-mannered good ol’ boy who “can skin a buck and never spill my beer,” somebody will. My audience sure did. We were so surprised by his authentic twang and ball-busting belts, we gave him what must have been a two-minute round of applause and stopped the show cold. It was a Kenny Rogers Coward of the County mouse-to-powerhouse moment that I soon won’t forget. I’m honestly surprised no one slipped a bra out of their blouse and slingshot it at the stage.

photo: Emilio Madrid
Andrew Durand.

It’s ballads like “Somebody Will” where the music and lyrics team of Brandy Clark and Shane McAnally really do their Nashville thing. Their slow jams shine a spotlight on classic country themes: Outsiders are in, chauvinists are out, nice guys are willing to wait, and small-town girls have big-city dreams.

My audience got to witness two such young women live out theirs. 

Understudies Traci Elaine Lee, originally of Dallas, Texas, and Paducah, Kentucky’s own Miki Abraham stepped into the star roles of Maizy and Lulu, and when they sang their duet about being best friends, they made me stop laughing and cry.

“I was stunned by Lulu,” said a theatergoer as we filed out of our seats.

I was too. When Abraham sang “Independently Owned,” she commanded the room with a Julia Sugarbaker, just-so-you-will-know-and-your-children-will-someday-know prowess that I felt how I imagine the folks at Thoroughly Modern Millie must have felt in the nineties when they saw understudy Sutton Foster tap dance in an elevator.

And here’s the thing: I didn’t know Abraham and Lee were understudies because it’s Broadway, where every understudy is a supernova; I didn’t check for white slips in my program; and—most importantly—I hadn’t been following press for the show. 

Why would I pay good Sondheim money to see a musical set in a cornfield? I thought Shucked was for tourists, like Time Square’s Bubba Gump. My audience had more Southern accents than a state fair. They clutched souvenir shot glasses printed with the lyric, “Yeah, we love Jesus, but we drink a little.” 

Well aw-shucks, those tourists were right, and I was ’Bama reborn. Shucked is worth every penny—because laughter, no matter how corny, is priceless.

photo: Matthew Murphy & Evan Zimmerman
The cast of Shucked.