The Broadway Theatre Review: Shucked and Bad Cinderella
Well, sometimes a new musical comes along and sounds like it should be a great thing, or at least a success of some sort, led by a well-known big name and backed by a solid P.R. machine. And then, sometimes, another comes along based on the idea of Corn. Yes, you heard me right, a musical about corn, or so it appears. And one would feel foolish placing their bet on the corn (ier) contender, but in this case, Corn comes out on top. Way on top, making the other appear even more foolish than any bet would have been.
Shucked is that winning musical, growing high and towering above that big-named Bad musical. No doubt about it, and with that hilariously written book by Robert Horn (Disney’s Hercules; Tootsie) and those sharply grown music/lyrics by Brandy Clark (“Follow Your Arrow“) and Shane McAnally (NBC’s “Songland“), this musical finds an award-winning balance of smart and silly, sung strong, and delivered with a confidence by a stellar cast that astounds. It’s completely joyful and ridiculous, springing up from the stage as quite the different growth than most other offerings this season, with two storytellers strutting stupendously onto that barnyard stage to lead us through their tall “farm to fable” tale of a cob county in peril. Grinning from ear to ear (of corn), the Storytellers, named 1 and 2, hilariously well played by Ashley D. Kelley (Public’s Eve’s Song) and Grey Henson (Broadway’s Mean Girls), show “RANGE!” and rhythm, roaring a corn line dance to the heavens and pulling us most wonderfully into their warm comical embrace. The two are magnificently charming and engaging, never failing to drop a ridiculous line just when you thought they couldn’t find one, and making you laugh, sometimes in awe of what they all just pulled off.
The corny center has its eye on Maizy, gloriously played by the big-eyed Caroline Innerbichler (Park Square’s Ragtime) who unearths a certain style of wisdom found somewhere deep inside her optimistic naivete. This rare blend can only be matched by her beau, Beau, portrayed dimly and brightly by Andrew Durand (Broadway’s Head Over Heels). As a pair, grown to be together, they sparkle inside their sweet simplicity, until the day the corn turned and their marriage was put on hold. But it is the trusty brother, Peanut, that somehow steals the stupid right from under their feet, and delivers his ridiculous and wisely crafted thoughts up for our surprised consideration. Played brilliantly dumb by Kevin Cahoon (Broadway’s Tommy), the corndog jokes keep flying forth, giving us all the impression that Peanut might just be wiser than we could ever imagine. Just like this show.
But if we are looking for showstoppers, we don’t have to look any farther than cousin Lulu, triumphantly portrayed by Alex Newell (Broadway’s Once on This Island), with special thanks to music supervisor, orchestrator, arranger, and conductor Jason Howland (Broadway’s Paradise Square). Newell is given the “Independently Owned” moment to shine so bright one can barely stay in their seat when that number flies high above the corn fields. It’s no wonder that the handsome foreigner, Gordy, devilishly well-played by John Behlmann (Broadway’s Tootsie), who has been brought in from Tampa, yes, Tampa, to save the corn and the county from dying, sees Lulu as something so powerful that one Lu would not be enough.
The story sprouts up and out of almost nowhere, shooting out zingers at almost every turn and growing tall and strong in the Broadway light. It’s unapologetically corny and stupid, but with brilliance and flavor in every nugget. And as directed with swift sharp cleverness by Jack O’Brien, who brought that same wit to Broadway’s Hairspray, this show shines ever so bright and funny. With playful choreography by Sarah O’Gleby (Broadway’s Almost Famous), a fun sun-drenched set by Scott Pask (Broadway’s Some Like it Hot), playfully country costuming by Tilly Brimes (West End’s Mad House), sharply crafted lighting by Japhy Weideman (Broadway’s Dear Evan Hansen), and a stellar sound design by John Shivers (Broadway’s Pretty Woman), this is an unstoppable joy ride, with Maizy looking with such hope for a window, not a wall, to deliver forth a show filled with some of the wittiest songs and funniest lines for us to chew on. Grap an ear, and enjoy this blessed crop.
But in a big Broadway theatre a few blocks north, the name of the show certainly does say it all, and not in the way I’m guessing composer Andrew Lloyd Webber (School of Rock) intended. With a ridiculous, and not in a good Shucked way, book by Emerald Fennell (“Killing Eve“) and book adaptation by Alexis Scheer, with lyrics written by David Zippel (City of Angels), Bad Cinderella delivers as the title suggests. It’s not terrible, nor is it horrible. No, just sorta Bad and boring in the simplistic way that something that could have been sorta sweet or interesting has turned, and now leaves a taste in your mouth that you’d rather wish you hadn’t bitten into.
As directed with some energy and fluidity by Laurence Connor (London Palladium/Toronto’s Joseph…), the true problem lies in a number of different bad apples. The main premise, that beauty, as presented in the story, should not be as valued in the same high way as the Queen, played with over-the-top glee by Grace McLean (Broadway’s Natasha, Pierre,…), demands, is one right out of the fairytale books. Yet, everything about this production, including its gorgeous scenic and costume design by Gabriela Tylesova (Love Never Dies US tour), and its own convoluted storybook, showcases quite the opposite. The cast and all the humor of Bad Cinderella are formulated on the Prince Charming aesthetic, and that, in the end, is not all that satisfying. The musical feels like it’s a con, trying to trick us into hearing and applauding one morality story, while embracing another, one that goes against the first.
The bodies, particularly the male ones, are showcased and elevated at every turn, bare-chested and exercising as the crowd roars with delight. For some unknown reason. Maybe we should ask choreographer JoAnn M. Hunter (Broadway’s School of Rock), who leads this crew through their fanciful steps. But “The Hunks“, as they are referred to in the Playbill, all chest-bounce their pecs to applause (not mine), without any irony, right up to the point when Charming, embodied by the buff Cameron Loyal (An Officer and a Gentleman tour), finally does arrive, bouncing onto the stage in full muscle-bound glory slaying the competition for moral high ground. It is all but lost, even if the marriage is some sort of great correction.
Unfortunately, even its main character, Cinderella, played problematically by Linedy Genao (Broadway’s On Your Feet!), throws her own set of values and morals under the bus as fast as can be. She diligently stands for one thing, but when a ball is thrown, she quickly tosses aside all that she holds true, and runs off to see the unexplained Godmother, sharply portrayed by an underused Christina Acosta Robinson (Broadway’s Summer…). Don’t ask me what the formulation in all that “Beauty Has a Price” song and dance is all about. It doesn’t really add up, just like the motivation or the delivery. But the Cinderella character, as written, never really makes a whole lot of sense. She’s mad. She’s hurt. She’s angry. She’s in love. She’s annoyed. She wants to be pretty, but soon after, she’s running away, and then she’s not. It’s like she doesn’t know which shoe goes on which foot, even though we all see that Prince Sebastian, as played adorably by the cute Jordan Dobson (Broadway’s West Side Story), just wants to be with her, and vice versa.
The two leads attempt to be compelling, in a way, looking cute and well-matched, even sadly, in their vocal weakness. They are given songs, like “So Long“, “Only You, Lonely You”, and “Far Too Late“, which are meant to stir up an emotionally heightened connection and make us wish hard for their dreams to come true. “I Wish” (different musical), but yet, we sit and feel tense, wondering if they are going to hit that high note strong enough or hold it long enough. But their energy, although all over the place – thanks to that book and to the songs they have been given to sing, is somewhat charming. More charming than Prince Charming and his pecs a-bouncing again and again. That act gets so tired, as tired as the show itself.
Carolee Carmello (Broadway’s Finding Neverland) as the evil Stepmother, alongside her two self-obsessed daughters, Adele, dutifully portrayed by Sami Gayle (Netlifx’s “Candy Jar“) and Marie, played well by Morgan Higgins (Nickelodeon’s “Lost in the West“), do find their way through the mess, with Carmello and Higgins relishing their roles and the twists that come with a delightfully strong presence. The Stepmother at least knows who she is and what she wants, unlike that Bad Cinderella character who loses herself and us as she runs into the woods in search of a coherent reason. Speaking of Into the Woods, I’d gladly stick with Sondheim’s Cinderella, rather than this confused byproduct of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s bland attempt to be relevant once again. At least the shoe part fits, and isn’t just thrown away in a temper tantrum. I’d rather be Shucked.
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