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‘Shucked’! “Shucks Ma’am, It’s a Helluva Show!”

Ashley D. Kelley,  Grey Henson in 'Shucked' (courtesy of Matthew Murphy & Evan Zimmermann)
Ashley D. Kelley, Grey Henson in Shucked (courtesy of Matthew Murphy & Evan Zimmermann)

If you love corn and even if you hate it, you will laugh at the jokes about or related to the sunny fruit (official classification), in Shucked, the funny, bright, clever, homespun musical fable/farce about love, corn and deeper things. Shucked is a throwback to delightful Broadway productions that are easily relatable and pack a thematic lunch that is palatable and digestible. The cast twits itself throughout and clues the audience in to the one-liners, puns and spicy double entendres, as they judiciously pause for the raucous audience laughter to subside, then deliver the next quip with a twinkle and no wrinkle.

Shucked has something for everyone with innuendos aplenty. Directed by the seasoned Jack O’Brien (Tony Award® winner for Hairspray), who shepherds his cast toward drop-dead pacing and finely honed delivery to produce maximum laughs, the production currently runs at the Nederlander Theatre around two hours and fifteen minutes, including intermission.

(L to R): Alex Newell, Caroline Innerbichler, Kevin Cahoon, and Andrew Durand in 'Shucked' (courtesy of Matthew Murphy & Evan Zimmermann)
(L to R): Alex Newell, Caroline Innerbichler, Kevin Cahoon, and Andrew Durand in Shucked (courtesy of Matthew Murphy & Evan Zimmermann)

With the book by Tony Award® winner Robert Horn (also Drama Desk, Outer Critics Circle, NY Drama Critics’ Circle awards for Tootsie), and music and lyrics by the Grammy® Award-winning songwriting team of Brandy Clark and Shane McAnally, the show is finding its way to hit status, having received its jet-pack from these talented creatives. Featuring an exceptional cast, whose vocals hit the mark every time, Shucked is a musical that leaves one with a smile on one’s face, and songs thrumming through one’s mind. It’s a delectable corn dog that takes you from “farm to fable.”

Introduced by bubbly, enthusiastic Storytellers # 1 and # 2 (Ashley D. Kelley, Grey Henson), who note many funny, lovely facts about and uses of corn (“Corn”), we learn about Cobb County, the place that time forgot because folks had all they needed and walled themselves off from the outside world, using the “high as an elephant’s eye” corn plants. There, Maizy (Caroline Innerbichler) and Beau (Andrew Durand) are standing at the altar ready to receive their wedding vows when the cataclysm happens. Patches of corn plants decorating various sections of the stage begin to die. How Scott Pask (scenic design) manages this and the corn’s restoration is neatly effective.

Believing that Cobb County’s xenophobia is destructive and their worst enemy in face of this corn dying disaster that threatens their way of life, heroine Maizy identifies the county’s chief problem (“Walls”). It has a fixed and irrational paranoia about strangers, and thus, they avoid the outside world. Maizy decides that she must leave the isolation of their existence and find answers to the corn die off. Not only does this upset her cousin Lulu (Alex Newell), and the riotous Peanut (Kevin Cahoon’s deadpan delivery and twanging accent are sincerely hysterical), her fiance Beau (Durand’s macho know-it-all is humorously harmless), puts his annoyed foot down. He tries to exert his will over her when she expresses her desire to leave. However, she has a point when she tells him Cobb County is too limited to provide any answers. Despite Beau’s directives, Maizy leaves, affirming they will be married after she finds the solution to their corn apocalypse.

Alex Newell in 'Shucked' (courtesy of Matthew Murphy & Evan Zimmermann)
Alex Newell in Shucked (courtesy of Matthew Murphy & Evan Zimmermann)

On her journey from Cobb County, Maizy ends up in Tampa, which the Storytellers conclude is a “humid wonderland of welcoming Tamponians and one douchebag” (“Travelin’ Song”). The number is a clever, humorous build up to the large, bright, neon letters that spell out the city’s name. It is only topped by the city slicker, scam artist Gordy (John Behlmann), a scheming, horse gambling, poseur podiatrist who “removes corns.” Naive Maizy seeks out this scientist and professed expert on corns, not realizing where his “expertise” lies. To make matters worse for Maizy, Gordy is a failed gambler and con (“Bad”). Nevertheless,, the sweet, simple Maizy shows him the rot-ridden ear of corn from home and he promises he might be able to do something.

Sensing an easy way to get out of his $200,000 gambling debt from leg-breaking gangsters, Gordy shows interest in Maizy, after he takes her broken bracelet to jewelers to have it fixed. In a brief, stylized, mini-aside by the all-purpose storytellers, who double this time as disreputable jewelers showing their “range,” (Kelly’s Storyteller #1 quips this), they move the story ahead. They assure Gordy they will buy the unique, valuable stones which can easily be found, “it gathers in clusters like single women in their thirties.” After a seductive dinner and drinks, Gordy produces a perfect ear of corn for Maizy that he tells her he has “fixed.” Of course, she invites him back to Cobb County “to fix” all the corn. Behlmann’s Gordy persists in his romantic seduction to get into Maizy’s rocks underneath the house where she lives.

Thrilled at her own bravery and ability to rectify Cobb County’s corn apocalypse, Innerbichler’s Maizy effectively shows her vocal chops in “Woman of the World.” After the proud, self-satisfied Maizy toots her own horn for bringing back stranger Gordy to meet and save the town, at Beau’s farm Peanut voices his opinion about Beau and Maizy’s love. He quips, “Ever since Maizy came back with this Corn Doctor, you’ve been pissier than a public pool.” In her meet up with Beau to share her “new-found wisdom,” Maizy affirms her sophisticated personality change. In her “pissing-contest” competitiveness with Beau, she lets information slip that devastates Durand’s Beau. He kicks her off his land, then belts out “Somebody Will,” a number that guys can identify with, if they have ever broken up with a long-term partner.

In another women centered number, Lulu (the superb Alex Newell),, belts out a syncopated country tune, “Independently Owned” promoting her whiskey business. As she advertises her autonomy from a man, she warns Gordy to “watch out,” despite her business spiraling downward on an absence of corn supply. Regardless of what happens, Lulu knows who butters her corn. The exchanges among Maizy, Gordy and Lulu, like most of the dialogue in Shucked, are crafted for Henny Youngman/Mae West styled one-liners, with ironic punchlines shot out like rhythmically paced cannon fire. How the actors convey their characters without “pushing it” is authentic and a testament to their comedic brilliance, O’Brien’s direction and Horn’s fine book.

In a winding up toward the end of Act I, Gordy’s situation has a monkey wrench thrown into it. Due to poor cellular connections on two phones, he gets the wrong information which spurs him on in desperation. Over-hearing Gordy’s phone conversations (misinformation), Peanut, Beau and Lulu assess that Gordy is up to no good (“Holy Shit”). How they settle at that conclusion speaks more to their upset that Maizy bravely left and came back with a solution, than hearing the truth. Maizy is forced to defend Gordy’s presence in Cobb County and affirms her faith in him. Alone, she admits she is torn between her feelings for Beau and the possibility of love with Gordy (“Maybe Love”).

The cast of 'Shucked' (courtesy of Matthew Murphy & Evan Zimmermann)
The cast of Shucked (courtesy of Matthew Murphy & Evan Zimmermann)

Shocked into accepting her belief in him, Gordy persuades the townspeople of his ideas about “fixing” the corn (“Corn”). As the song concludes Act I, Maizy accepts Gordy’s proposal of marriage, and we are left for one intermission to guess whether Gordy’s plan to resurrect the corn has efficacy or his inner shyster is getting over to hightail it outta Cobb with some valuable gem stones.

Horn’s book is tightly spun with the songs which slip in messages of love, acceptance, risk taking, hospitality and compromise, with large portions of savory humor in the lyrics. Jason Howland, who is responsible for music supervision, music direction, orchestrations and arrangements, keeps the score country vibrant, so it sounds like a mix of other music genres in its country beats and rhythms. Japhy Weideman lights the barn for appropriate atmosphere, and John Shivers’ sound design is on target. This is tricky in a show like Shucked, which is dependent on a balance of sound throughout the theater for maximum contagious laughter at the quips, puns and double entendres. Mia Neal’s wig design has a modern flavor with a “Hee-Haw” touch to meld with Tilly Grimes patchwork, homespun costume design of plaids, paisleys and “patches,” that appear to be cut out of various “past-their-prime” clothing items.

The cast of 'Shucked' (courtesy of Matthew Murphy & Evan Zimmermann)
The cast of Shucked (courtesy of Matthew Murphy & Evan Zimmermann)

Scott Pask’s barn staging has every item and tool one would imagine on a working farm. The intricate, wooden barn structure remains stationary while Lulu’s whiskey still and paraphernalia are brought out when appropriate for some songs in Act II (the hysterical, ironic “We Love Jesus”). And the playing area is large enough to roll out whiskey barrels for the fantastic “Best Man Wins,” as Beau, Peanut, Storyteller #2 and the ensemble jump on the barrels and stand Beau on a long board and move him around. This is an ingenious and visually exciting dance number configured by choreographer Sarah O’Gleby.

There is no spoiler alert. You’ll just have to see Shucked to laugh until your sides ache and pay attention to what happens to bring the corn back from the edge of doom to bless Cobb County with joy, love and a bit of growth toward letting down their walls to accept strangers (“Maybe Love” reprise). Gee! The corn may be a metaphor for something.

This is one you will enjoy in the moment. And afterward, you may try to remember the songs and the wonderful quips, puns and one-liners that had you chortling in the corn row aisles of the audience. For the deeper meanings and references to our time, perhaps you should see it twice. They are cleverly woven into the themes amd strike fire for their currency.

Shucked runs with an end date in September at the Nederlander Theatre (208 West 41st St.). For tickets go to their website:

‘Tootsie’ is an Indescribably Delicious SMASH HIT

Scott Ellis, Tootsie, David Yazbek, Robert Horn Santino Fontana

Santino Fontana and Company in ‘Tootsie,’ directed by Scott Ellis, Music and Lyrics by David Yazbek, Book by Robert Horn (Matthew Murphy)

Tootsie, the 1982 film based on the story by Don McGuire and Larry Gelbart and the Columbia Pictures motion picture produced by Punch Productions, starring Dustin Hoffman, is a multi-award winner which is sanctified for its time. The Broadway musical comedy with Music and Lyrics by David Yazbek and Book by Robert Horn has been a long time coming and the wait has been well worth it.

The production starring the likeable and prodigiously talented Santino Fontana is a wondrous addition to this amazing Broadway season. Fontana’s voice is incredible, his dead pan timing bar none, his negotiation of the complexity of this titular role could not be more spectacular. Director Scott Ellis shepherds Fontana and the cast with acuity and grace.

Lilli Cooper, Scott Ellis, David Yazbek, Robert Horn, Tootsie

Lilli Cooper and Company in ‘Tootsie,’ directed by Scott Ellis, Music and Lyrics by David Yazbek, Book by Robert Horn (Matthew Murphy)

The Tootsie characterization has been cleverly updated to include superb jokes related to the #Metoo movement. Indeed, what was a maverick fluke in the 1980s film version about gender roles and sexual predation, certainly fits like a glove for our time. Its ridicule of various themes connected with political correctness about gender is cleverly managed. Regardless of left or right we scream with laughter about the self-righteousness of both positions. Tootsie balances on a median between extremes. This is a good thing.

For me, it is a welcome novelty after the mainstream media and social media have become the playland of political, click bait trolls, looking to garner hits and stir controversy. Tootsie is too adroitly written by Robert Horn for that. The only tweets and Instagram hits it will be receiving are for the sustained hilarity and classic comedic situations which bloom like roses in a never-ending summer of delight. I mention roses because the principals will be receiving bouquets for their virtuosity and excellence. Their stellar performances assisted by the equally adroit song and dance talents of the ensemble will run the gauntlet of award season flying high.

Generally, the plot is similar to the film with the major transformation that Michael/Dorothy is an excellent actor who primarily looks for theater work. As in the Michael of the film he is arrogant about his talent, and the conflict’s arc of development sparks when Michael interrupts director Ron Carlisle (Reg Rogers) during the rehearsal of a lousy play. Reg Rogers’ portrayal of the smarmy, oily potential predator who is a Bob Fosse-type without the talent is wonderfully funny.

Scott Ellis, Tootsie, Robert Horn, David Yazbek, Reg Rogers

Reg Rogers and Company in ‘Tootsie,’ directed by Scott Ellis, Book by Robert Horn, Music and Lyrics David Yazbek (Matthew Murphy)

Michael attempts to ingratiate himself with the director Ron Carlisle about his role in the ensemble. Ironically, Dorsey’s narcissism manifests in a twitting of the actors’ dictum: “There are no small parts, only small actors.” Michael suggests there is some confusion about his character’s backstory. When Carlisle tells him he is just in the ensemble and doesn’t require a backstory, Michael is the narcissist in his response.

The director’s outrage is spot-on hysterical and we feel little empathy for Michael who is fired outright. His arrogance and superiority have pushed him over the line as his agent (Michael McGrath) substantiates by firing him in a blow that is a touché! Michael knows he’s a mess, but lacks the power or wisdom to understand what to do about his external crisis, not realizing it’s best solved by changing internally.

Sarah STiles, Tootsie, Scott Ellis, Robert Horn, David Yazbek, Marquis Theatre

Sarah Stiles in ‘Tootsie,’ directed by Scott Ellis, Book by Robert Horn, Music and Lyrics by David Yazbek (Matthew Murphy)

Santino Fontana sings “Whaddya Do” attempting to negotiate his angst at being unemployable. We are unimpressed by his fledgling sign of despair in this song which doesn’t go to the root cause. He must learn much more about himself; he is not there yet. A crucial moment occurs when Sandy visits and informs him about a job she plans to audition for, then has a “slight” breakdown discussing it (“What’s Gonna Happen”). Michael gets the idea to morph into Dorothy Michaels (“Whaddya Do reprise) and audition for the job, having to suppress his male ego in a “female” body to disguise his loathsome face.

To get the role which seems highly unlikely, he’ll be Nurse Juliet in the ridiculous sequel to Romeo and Juliet entitled Julie’s Curse, an outlandish dog of a play that will most probably close opening night. As Michael auditions with “Won’t Let You Down,” Santino Fontana’s voice soars in triumph and realization. During the song, he gives birth to his female ethos and rounds out the personality of Dorothy Michaels housed in a “truck driver’s” body.

JUlie Halston, Reg Rogers, Santino Fontana, Tootsie, Sott Ellis, Robert Horn, David Yazbek

(background): Julie Halston, Reg Rogers (foreground): Santino Fontana in ‘Tootsie,’ directed by Scott Ellis, Book by Robert Horn, Music and Lyrics by David Yazbek (Matthew Murphy)

The production never returns to a moderate balance after this, though it has been set-up by a rollicking warm up with Sarah Stiles’ amazing work (more about that below). One reason why the show is a winner is that it glides into the heavens with the organic characterizations, the plot twists, turning points and two love stories (the second one is a ripping hoot thanks to the adorable John Behlmann as naively obtuse Max Van Horn who falls in love with Dorothy/Michael.

The actors’ pacing has been timed with precision to deliver the superbly engineered and crafted one-liners arising from the action and characterizations. The audience never recovers from these, swept up in the hysteria and barely catching their breaths for the next joke. The play is well-structured, building toward the two climaxes, one at the end of Act I and the other near the conclusion of Act II.

John Behlmann, Tootsie, Scott Ellis

John Behlmann in ‘Tootsie,’ directed by Scott Ellis (Matthew Murphy)

The principle theme, that Michael Dorsey has grown as a human being with the help of releasing his feminine side is winsomely revealed as a “la, la, la,” in the film, downplayed for its vitality and power. Santino Fontana does a phenomenal job in bringing this theme to the fore in his solos with his rich sonorous voice. The music strengthens this theme and others. We are reminded that males are ashamed to acknowledge emotions in the company of other males. Today’s retrograde social currents about the bullying “macho male” in the White House who is “cool male” in his indecency makes Tootsie an important show for our time.

A lot of the humor arises with the gender switching. The songs reveal softer scenes as Dorothy must negotiate “his” love for Julie Nichols (Lilli Cooper). The two actors have some wonderful moments as budding BFFs. Their conversations ring true for us today and Julie’s characterization has also been rounded out with profound depth in the writing and in Cooper’s winning portrayal. Julie is a modern, wise woman who does not cave in to the director who attempts to smooze her with his position. She remains steadfast to her career and does not marry.

Andy Grotelueschen, Tootsie, Scott Ellis

Andy Grotelueschen in ‘Tootsie,’ directed by Scott Ellis (Matthew Murphy)

The only “feminine woman attitude” the show allows is Michael/Dorothy’s Southern accent and this is an ironic blind. Supported by wealthy producer Rita Marshall (the excellent Julie Halston who pulls out all the stops) Michael/Dorothy takes a stand with the help of the ensemble and Julie. Dorothy Michaels reconfigures the show into one that is a going to be a shining hit (don’t ask how). The producer, Julie and the other actors appreciate Dorothy, though the director is angrily flummoxed. But Carlisle is masking chauvinism in his heart which we infer by his actions toward Julie. However, Carlisle’s producer is a woman who supports Dorothy’s “female” intuition about the play and her gumption to suggest revisions.

Michael’s acting talent and suggestions are given a hearing and used. Juliet’s Curse is transformed into a hit. By the end of Act I, “everything’s coming up roses” and Fontana’s Dorothy pridefully encourages himself by crowing out “Unstoppable.”

The song is a brilliant, humorous irony. Actors through experience, learn not to make presumptions about their future, out of sane superstition. (Sandy takes this to the reverse extreme.) Michael is headed for a fall. Like all of us do at one point or another, he does something to destroy his own success. As he attempts to recover, he digs a deeper hole for himself.

Santino Fontana, Lilli Cooper, Tootsie, Sott Ellis

Santino Fontana, Lilli Cooper, ‘Tootsie,’ directed by Scott Ellis (Matthew Murphy)

Roommate Jeff (Andy Grotelueschen) who has been waiting for him to choke, gleefully beats him over the head with his stupidity in the second funniest song of the production, “Jeff Sums it Up” at the top of Act II. Grotelueschen’s performance in this scene (with Fontana as the straight man) is THE MAX! Grotelueschen’s portrayal as the “frustrated” friend Jeff is visceral. His timing is 100%. The effect generates our sidesplitting, roaring laughter. We are down with both Jeff and Michael.

As Michael crashes and burns Greek comedy style., we intuit that the worst is coming. It is only a matter of time before Dorothy’s drag act will be exposed.

I didn’t expect to be so impressed, by this clever reworking of Tootsie, especially with regard to the music. However the songs are damned funny and the music doesn’t draw attention to itself as some composers are wont to do. Indeed, the music serves the story; the lyrics and music meld like white on rice.

Santino Fontana, Tootsie, Scott Ellis, David Yazbek, Robert Horn

Santino Fontana and Company, Tootsie, directed by Scott Ellis (Michael Murphy)

I examined hawk-like whether any songs appeared to just take up space because “after all it’s a musical comedy” and “a song is needed,” etc. NO! Indeed, all the best moments spring from the characters and portrayals. These spur the conflict and create riotous fun. I am hard pressed to critique any of the musical numbers as ancillary or humor killing. A few are extraordinary and a few are memorable pop songs with a beginning, middle and end that doesn’t wander into nothingness.

The two songs you won’t remember (because you’ll be rolling in the aisles) are sung by Michael Dorsey’s friends, his roommate Jeff (Andy Grotelueschen) in the second act and his actress friend Sandy Lester (Sarah Stiles) in the first act. Both songs are organically based in the characterizations. They concern human emotions that are so identifiable that the specifics don’t matter.

Andy Grotelueschen, Sarah Stiles, Tootsie, Scott Ellis, Robert Horn, David Yazbek

Andy Grotelueschen, Sarah Stiles in ‘Tootsie,’ directed by Scott Ellis, Book by Robert Horn, Music and Lyrics by David Yazbek (Matthew Murphy)

For example, in the song “What’s Gonna Happen!” Sandy takes off into a rant about her life as an actress, a state she apparently goes through before auditions. Her imagination terrorizes her into believing in a future and events that don’t yet exist. As she escalates her “crazy,” she explodes. She spews clouds of fear in a musical mixtape of strung together happenings that reach a level of frenzy that is beyond any drug to cure it.

Sarah Stiles is drop dead fabulous. Gobsmacking! We get it! We have been our own terrorists like Sandy, whipping our anxieties to an inner insanity of fear predicting our own nonexistent events. It is our brilliant healing that we find it uproarious to see and hear someone dare to express their delusions ALOUD in a rant more wacko than ours. The song and music are perfect; Stiles’ portrayal is 100 percent. Scott Ellis’ direction and staging elicit this exceptional moment, one of many in this humorously glorious production that kills it again and again.

I have not deeply belly-laughed this much during a Broadway show, except for British productions where the timing is as perfect as it gets. Never during a musical. I have nothing more to say, except you will regret not seeing Santino Fontana, Lilli Cooper, Sarah Stiles, John Behlmann, Andy Grotelueschen, Julie Halston, Michael McGrath and Reg Rogers, every one of them a gem and together, miraculous.

Kudos to Brian Ronan’s Sound Design-I heard every word which is vital for the clever lyrics. Mentions go to David Rockwell (Scenic Design) William Ivey Long (Costume Design) Donald Holder (Lighting Design) Paul Huntley (Hair and Wig Design) Angelina Avallone (Make-Up Design) David Chase (Dance Arrangement for their coherent artistry.

Tootsie runs at the Marquis Theatre with one intermission. For times and tickets, go to their website by CLICKING HERE.

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