Sound Advice Reviews
From corn to Korean
While cowboy Curly in Oklahoma! happily observed that "the corn is a high as an elephant's eye" and that lady of the house in Grey Gardens was cheered because "Jerry Likes My Corn," nothing on the musical theatre stage has celebrated that vegetable like Shucked. (In more recent times, "Schmigadoon"'s exuberant ode to "Corn Puddin'" made a convincing case for its main ingredient, but that pudding can't compare to Shucked putting multiple spotlights on the multi-purpose, yummy yellow item.) The plucky, pun-packed project revels in its glib goofiness, but its unabashed silliness gives way to kindness and caring.
A game and winning cast embraces the spirited country flavor and the fun, frisky sensibilities of the material provided by the songwriting team of Brandy Clark and Shane McAnally and bookwriter Robert Horn. Oh, the winking wordplay comes in proud profusion, from the minute things start with our introductions to a place called Cobb County and a protagonist named Maizy. She leaves the isolated farm community for Florida to seek someone who can help the compromised crop. Will she fall for the fellow she finds there or find herself pulled to the charms of a homegrown, corn-fed beau named Beau whose affection for her is growing as much as the dried-out, shriveling corn isn't? The plot thickens like slow-cookin' corn chowder.
There is no shortage of charm in this solid cast on the rewarding recording. Caroline Innerbichler and Andrew Durand shine as Maizy and Beau, whether showing sensitivity or spine. Her "Woman of the World" stirs up strength with an invigorating vocal, while "Maybe Love" is pensive. His brave-faced holding back of tears on "OK" invokes empathy ("She already let me go/ I'll get along, I'm movin' on/ I'm just movin' kind of slow"). As the shady character who claims he can conquer the crisis in corn, John Behlmann suavely bemoans the fact he isn't very good at being "Bad" ("I robbed a bank that had already been robbed"). As Maizy's cousin Lulu, Alex Newell has quite the sassy showstopper character piece to belt out with "Independently Owned." More bonhomie is provided by Ashley D. Kelley and Grey Henson as the cheerful, singing storytellers, with sunny Kevin Cahoon and a lively ensemble rounding out the cast.
The music is supervised, conducted, arranged, and orchestrated by Jason Howland, arriving felicitously with buoyancy–uncluttered and unforced. The mostly laid-back and engaging music flows naturally, with the emotional lyrics benefiting from economy while the brash, comical ones are fondly overstuffed. Whether lilting, lusty or LOL, they impress more when false rhymes are avoided, such as "prayer"/"scared" and "in"/"wind"/"friend" in the song "Walls." But approximated syllable matches often come with the territory of country music, past and present, so that doesn't feel so glaring.
The songwriters take center stage for two bonus tracks. These are heartfelt, nuanced renditions of tender numbers from the score: "Friends" and "Maybe Love." These lovely, understated tracks amplify the impression that these Shucked items stand on their own, touching on universal themes, not needing the context of the story.
Presenting styles of pop music and stories about characters in the music business aren't a foreign concept, but when KPOP popped up, it wasn't quite like anything else. Lyrics are sung in a mix of Korean and English, whisked along to the dance-friendly, percolating beats and bounce (with some rap interludes) of the South Korean brand of high-energy pop music. Bright-voiced, nimble singers seem enthused to entertain, indefatigable and in sync with the pulsating parade. The score by Helen Park and Max Vernon is an almost non-stop whirlwind that alternates celebrational joy with tougher self-assertive stances. Within songs, there are frequent and multiple switches from one language to the other, the dizzying back-and-forth sometimes serving to garnish with the plopping-in of just a word or two before turning again. In some pieces, the pace and placement allow for longer lingering in lines in English or Korean. Helpfully, phrase-by-phrase translations are provided in the CD's booklet (and there's a digital version).
The cast recording does not include any of the dialog that would let you know that the show's story is about pressures, pleasures and preparations centered around a special live concert as Ruby (Jully Lee), a domineering record label executive, and her artists interact. Don't look for many hints of plot in the songs or expect them to function as musicalized dialog or inner monologues. The recording immerses us in material representing the repertoire of the characters who are members of an all-male or all-female group–and the concert's celebrated star by the name of MwE, portrayed by the dynamic Luna, one of the cast members with performing experience in the genre. That aforementioned exec (in the Off-Broadway version, which was a quite different show, it was a married couple) and the two men she has filming everything don't sing.
Tight harmonies alternate with solo turns. Luna burns with unleashed fierce, frustrated diva attitudes, demanding attention, but also shows sensitivity in the mournful "Mute Bird" and crooning the tender melody of "Still I Love You" (done almost completely in Korean). These are welcome changes of pace. As the mixed-race new replacement in a boy band, Zachary Noah Piser bursts with rock star charisma on the robust "Halfway."
Lyrics fly by. Some of the English lines rhyme perfectly, some not so much. Everyday verbiage segues into more colorful choices. Here are a few samples:
"Please/ Get on your knees/ All your phone calls, all the sad texts/ Tearing up my DMs like the talons of a T-Rex" (from "A Waste of Time")
"But now I'm finally free/ And I'm gonna rise so high/ 'Cause I'm feeling so alive/ It's time to break away/ Just like a phoenix I'm reborn from the decay/ Now I'm here to stay" (from "Phoenix")
"I'll never roll my eyes when you're near/ Anytime I wanna cry, I'll switch gears/ Stuck with you forever like Super Glue" (from "Wind Up Doll") This number, richer and more dramatic than others, is an indictment of how contracted performers are treated like commodities–and how MwE tries to stay strong. In an analogous but lighter way, for the guys, "Korean Man" ("Hanguknom") acknowledges the stoic expectations for that gender.
While the style of K-pop is far from Golden Age Broadway musical comedy, it boldly gleams on its own terms. And the beat goes on.