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The World Is SHUCKED’s Oyster By Peter Filichia

What started out as a musical variation on HEE-HAW has had the last laugh.

SHUCKED was originally inspired by that erstwhile TV series that’s been rarely off the air since its 1969 debut. Although it had clocked more than 350 episodes, in all that time, it was able to receive one and only one Emmy nomination.

Granted, that nomination resulted in a win – for Outstanding Achievement in Video Tape Editing.

But that was it.

Compare that to SHUCKED, which eventually shed its connection to HEE-HAW and became its own special creation. Last month, the new musical at the Nederlander Theatre was able to receive multiple nominations from the Tonys (nine), Drama Desk (12) and Outer Critics Circle (seven) – including, as the ads like to trumpet, Best Musical.

Just as impressive, Robert Horn (book), Brandy Clark and Shane McAnally (score), and Jason Howland (orchestrations) all scored a triple crown in snagging noms from all three committees.

SHUCKED takes place not in Atlanta’s Cobb County, but in the mythical Cob County, named for all those cobs of corn that the county produces en masse. Alas, suddenly something is preventing the corn from growing as high as … well, you can guess that Robert Horn quoted the third line from the opening song of the first Rodgers and Hammerstein musical.

Peanut (Tony nominee Kevin Cahoon), a commentator on Morning Stalk Radio, starts the story, but two storytellers (Grey Henson and Theatre World Award winner Ashley D. Kelley) soon take over and tell of how corn took over Cob County, to the delight of its citizens. “We love corn flakes, we love corn cakes,” they sing. They also get right down to countrified brass tacks when proclaiming “Hands or feet, no wrong way to eat corn.”

So, they “don’t know where we’d be without that golden corn.” And that’s the problem. Something has stunted the growth, and now the corn is as high as an elephant’s toe. This also occurred on a day when “vows were written for a wedding that almost didn’t happen” between Beau and (get it?) Maizy (Theatre World Award winner Caroline Innerbichler).

The marriage certainly looks endangered once Maizy decides to leave town. As Beau stringently reminds her, nobody does that in Cob County. (It’s like Brigadoon.)

However, because no Cobcountian can figure out how to get the corn growing again, Maizy will break tradition and take to the outside world to find someone who can. That brings her to Tampa where she notes that “the sand is white, the sun is gold, and all the people are so old.”

(“New York, New York” is played after every Yankees’ home game, but don’t expect this song about Tampa to be welcomed after the Rays, Buccaneers or Lighting conclude their contests.)

There’s more to Maizy, though. She exhibits gravitas in “Walls.” She sees the value of building “walls around our homes, around our hearts … so what’s inside won’t fall apart,” but, far more tellingly, she shows incisiveness in one of the show’s best lyrics: “I’m looking for a window, not a wall.”

All right, here’s where we’ll have to suspend some disbelief. Maizy sees a sign for a “Corn Doctor,” and figures he’s the man for the job. Ah, no: Gordy is actually … a podiatrist. Does anyone in that profession erect a shingle in front of his office that specifically says “Corn Doctor” instead of podiatrist?

Never mind. He’s Gordy, who’s also a ne’er-do-well, but one who suffers from incompetence. “I robbed a bank that had already been robbed,” he admits. “My pyramid schemes all turned into squares.” The women in town are sympathetic, mostly because he’s handsome: “Just be better at bad!” they advise.

Well, how you gonna keep Maizy down on the farm after she’s seen Tampa? But duty calls, so she’ll return home with Gordy, which brings no pleasure to Beau. “I’m pretty good-lookin’,” he insists, before amending that with “If you look around here.” Trouble is, Maizy has indeed been looking elsewhere, prompting Beau to sing, “There’s a lotta fish even in a little creek.”

Time to meet another colorful Cob County character: Lulu (Tony nominee Alex Newell), who makes corn whiskey. She sings that she’s not only “independently owned and operated,” but also “independently owned and liberated” as well as “independently owned and complicated.” Her bottom line? “I don’t need a man to feel emancipated.” Perhaps not, but we’ll see if she gets one, anyway.

At the matinee I attended, Newell’s “Independently Owned” got the best kind of applause: it started, built, peaked and declined … but just as it was about to end, no, the audience decided to ramp it back up and in fact make the applause louder than it had been the first time. Once you hear “Independently Owned” on digital services (available right now, or on the CD that will be released on June 9), you may find yourself giving Newell and “Independently Owned” the same kind of applause.

Meanwhile, Maizy finds herself pulled in an unexpected direction: “Maybe love ain’t what I got,” she sings, thinking of Beau, “but maybe love is what I got,” in reference to Gordy. We feel so bad that the naïvete of small-town life hasn’t made her savvy enough so see through the city slicker, but the show isn’t over yet.

Neither is the original cast album. Gordy pretends that he knows how to fix the problem (not to be revealed here): “You need a green thumb,” he sings. “I’m a whole green hand.” And the Cobcountians are green enough to believe him.

Not Beau, who says he’s “movin’ on” from Maizy, before admitting “I’m just movin’ kinda slow” and, sung far more reluctantly, “I didn’t know she’d move so fast.”

It wouldn’t be a country musical without the expected country songs mourning lost love. Clark and McAnally offer a number of such numbers as well as music that’s in the good ol’-fashioned, tub-thumping, hoedown-ish, time-honored tradition.

Howland makes it sound authentic, which brings up LI’L ABNER. It took place in a location not unlike Cob County, and it had joyous Gene de Paul music and witty Johnny Mercer lyrics that honored the location. But Philip J. Lang’s orchestrations were distinctly 1950’s Broadway. Howland is country all the way.

So, SHUCKED scores mightily. And by the way … is there any musical that has ever had a pair of song titles that are more polar opposites than “We Love Jesus” and “Holy Shit”?

Peter Filichia can be heard most weeks of the year on His new book – THE BOOK OF BROADWAY MUSICAL DEBATES, DISPUTES, AND DISAGREEMENTS – is now available on Amazon.