SALT LAKE CITY — Shucked, a new musical with a book by Robert Horn and music and lyrics by Brandy Clark and Shane McAnally, made its debut at Pioneer Theatre Company on October 28th. If these names do not ring a bell, their collective works certainly would. Horn won a Tony Award for his book of the stage version of Tootsie, and Clark and McAnally are 21st century country music powerhouses. Add in director Jack O’Brien (a 7-time Tony Award nominee for directing and 3-time winner, most famously for Hairspray) and a star studded cast from stage and screen, and Pioneer Theatre Company has a recipe for a lot of theatrical enjoyment served up with, well, corn.
The plot brings the audience to a small town in Cobb County that has been untouched by the outside world, allowing the citizens to build their own sort of utopia. However, when their corn-growing way of life becomes threatened, Maizy (played by the fantastically talented Caroline Innerbichler) takes it upon herself to step into the unknown to try and save the situation. What follows is a story of romance, heroism, familial love, loyalty, and a lot of humor. There are a great number for familial connections, which are guided by two story tellers, and the connections are reminiscent of a well-knit community.
I hesitate to reveal more because much of the fun and delight of Shucked is discovering how characters connect to one another and watching the storyline unfold. Horn’s script has a lot of corny jokes, and I state this as praise. A good yet corny joke is hard to come by, but in Shucked, there are so many, and they happened quickly in succession. These jokes make me laugh, not moan, and taught me kernels of wisdom, such as, “Family means telling someone to go to hell, but then worrying that they get their safely.”
I was enamored by the chemistry among the cast. The two Storytellers (played by Ashley D. Kelley and Taylor Trensch) not only proided excellent narration for the evening, but they also filled several side roles, provided comedic interludes, rendered as amazing musical additions, and served as a nice tie-in at the end of the performance. To have two characters shift from helping the audience understand the plot to becoming an integral a part of it is a sign of excellent writing and versatile actors.
There were some really powerhouse moments in Shucked. Alex Newell plays Lulu, Maizy’s cousin and the town’s corn whiskey maker. With the song “Independently Owned,” Newell sent shivers down my arms and had the audience hooting and hollering. Innerbrichler was incredible every time she opened her mouth to sing. Her voice was clearly made for this blend of country music and Broadway sound, and she also was able to beautifully give Maizy a mix of naivety and strong hope. John Behlmann (as the handsome Gordy) and Andrew Durand (as the charming and loyal Beau) also had amazing vocals and strong solo moments, while Kevin Cahoon’s comedic timing as Peanut was perfect.
The technical design on all levels was impeccable. From the set design of a beautiful barn that also serves as the backdrop for much of the show (conceived by Scott Pask), to the music direction (flawlessly executed by Daniel Edwards), it was truly a delightful evening. The harmonies of the full chorus shook the whole house. The live orchestrations are something that should be seen more often in theatrical houses. And the connection of the cast helped me feel like I was watching actual family.
Now to the bigger question: could Shucked succeed Broadway? If anyone knew for sure how to make a hit on Broadway, then every show would run for years and there would be no flops. While luck is always involved, I believe that Shucked would not last long in the current Broadway market. Shucked is a great production, but a lot of great productions close within a year on Broadway. Post-COVID, new musicals that rely on heart and strong performances (like Come From Away) are struggling or closing. Shucked probably cannot survive by relying on ticket buyers from New York City and the surrounding areas. Until tourism bounces back, the show should build up more name recognition and buzz by playing in more cities before a Broadway production.
And that is at it should be. The story that is told needs to be heard in Omaha or Des Moines or New Orleans as much or more than it needs to be heard in New York. But as someone who has called both New York and Utah home, I am glad that Shucked decided to plant its first roots in Utah.