‘Make ‘em laugh’ is the upbeat mantra on New York stages this spring

NEW YORK — To get right to the nub of it: kernels of sidesplitting silliness pop all the way through “Shucked,” a Broadway musical so packed with corn humor it practically stalks you for laughs.

The score by Brandy Clark and Shane McAnally is generically serviceable, with one exception: “Independently Owed,” a haymaker of a solo for Alex Newell, who by virtue of a knockout performance as a sassy distiller of corn whiskey plows a path to Broadway renown. The highest honors, though, belong to quip master Robert Horn, whose book for the show is — forgive me — a cornucopia of jokes. Of an endlessly a-maizing variety.

As “Shucked” reveals, a musical seeded with farm humor finds it hard to stop with the cornfed puns. The more shocking revelation is that the show is a bona fide hoot. I dare you to take a seat in the Nederlander Theatre — where the musical marked its official opening earlier this month — and not give in to the nonstop agronomic zaniness.

Directed by Jack O’Brien, a Broadway vet (“Hairspray,” “The Front Page”) who knows his way around funny, “Shucked” may be, for its all country cuteness, one of the savviest new shows on Broadway. Grey Henson and Ashley D. Kelley as the gleeful Storytellers, Kevin Cahoon as a hayseed philosopher and Caroline Innerbichler as the requisite ingenue all joyfully indulge the cheeky, harmlessly off-color vibe.

For anyone who might feel like a trip to a comedy spa, funny business of myriad varieties is blossoming with the spring here. James Ijames’s Pulitzer-winning “Fat Ham,” for instance, has hung out its sign at Broadway’s American Airlines Theatre on West 42nd Street, inviting us to a raucous backyard party with a melancholy young man and his self-dramatizing family in North Carolina — or is it Elsinore? A block away, at Second Stage Theatre’s Tony Kiser Theater, composer-lyricist Michael R. Jackson, a Tony winner for “A Strange Loop,” has unveiled his latest, “White Girl in Danger,” an off-Broadway musical spoof with some delirious gags and a desperate need for editing.

“Fat Ham” enjoyed a life online during the pandemic, courtesy of Philadelphia-based Wilma Theater, of which Ijames (pronounced IMES) is one of three artistic directors. It then went on to a live run at off-Broadway’s Public Theater, a production that the cast and director Saheem Ali now reprise on Broadway.

The play mirrors “Hamlet” in delightfully unabashed ways, making Juicy, its Hamlet-like star — played with sublime comic confidence by Marcel Spears — into a gender-fluid hero. Juicy stews over the abrupt marriage of his mother Tedra (fabulous Nikki Crawford) to his murdered father’s brother Rev (Billy Eugene Jones, doubling terrifically as the father’s ghost). James’s achievement is to repurpose the tragic elements of “Hamlet” for farce, without resorting to juvenile antics. It doesn’t give away too much to report that turning “Hamlet’s” play-within-a-play into a game of “Charades” (wherein Juicy catches the conscience of the king) is inspired.

With some deft, haunting touches in the lighting by Brad King and illusions by Skylar Fox, the cast cavorts grandly on Maruti Evans’s leafy suburban set. The actors, all of whom get their risible moments, also include Chris Herbie Holland, Adrianna Mitchell, Calvin Leon Smith and Benja Kay Thomas. The play finishes with one last surprising illusion and one splendiferous profusion of music, and costuming by Dominique Fawn Hill.

“Fat Ham” is offered in association with Roundabout Theatre Company, whose longtime artistic director, Todd Haimes, died on Wednesday, at 66. I’d known Haimes for more than a quarter century as a true man of the theater, highly competitive but also generous to the community of artists and fellow producers, and who built a veritable nonprofit empire of Broadway and off-Broadway venues. That at his passing his flagship space should host a divine comic riff on “Hamlet” provides a poignant opportunity to say good night, sweet prince.

“White Girl in Danger” puts you in a jovial frame of mind, too — even at a mere first hint of the premise. We are in an alternate dimension somewhere between a film studio and the TV screen, where live the citizens of AllWhite, a retro soap opera suburb in which the Black characters struggle for liberation from their background status — here called the “Blackground.” Ambitious Keesha Gibbs (an excellent LaToya Edwards) wants to escape the Blackground inhabited by her elders, such as Clarence (James Jackson Jr.) the high school janitor and her mom, Nell (Tarra Conner Jones), the school lunch lady/nurse/name-any-other-stereotypical-job-title-here.

Keesha’s great dream is her own “A” plotline, a quest that takes on mythic proportions in “White Girl in Danger.” The hysterics and solipsism of the White characters — including teenagers Megan White (Molly Hager), Maegan Whitehall (Alyse Alan Louis) and Meagan Whitehead (Lauren Marcus) — thwart Keesha’s efforts at centering her story. It’s a satirical allegory about the tired conventions of American popular culture and the struggle over, among other things, who gets to determine how Blackness is portrayed.

Jackson, the musical’s authorial triple threat, is a hugely important voice in the theater, and he has so much he wants to say — and in ways that disrupt conventional thinking, on race, sexual politics, gender identity, faith. Those impulses were channeled brilliantly in “A Strange Loop.” In the nearly three-hour wild ride of “White Girl in Danger,” you feel sometimes he and director Lileana Blain-Cruz want to explore so many ideas and themes that coherence takes a back seat.

Jackson’s advantage in “A Strange Loop” was the focus on a central character, Usher, a young man of evolving self-awareness breaking into show business. Here, an amusing if chaotic mise-en-scene is what’s at center stage. With some skillful surgery, “White Girl in Danger” can become as scathingly funny, with a sharpened point, as it seeks to be.

Shucked, book by Robert Horn, music and lyrics by Brandy Clark and Shane McAnally. Directed by Jack O’Brien. Choreography, Sarah O’Gleby; music direction, Jason Howland; set, Scott Pask; costumes, Tilly Grimes; lighting Japhy Weideman; sound, John Shivers; wigs, Mia Neal. With John Behlmann, Andrew Durand. About 2 1/2 hours. At Nederlander Theatre, 208 W. 41st St., New York. shuckedmusical.com.

Fat Ham, by James Ijames. Directed by Saheem Ali. Set, Maruti Evans; costumes, Dominique Fawn Hill; lighting, Brad King; sound, Mikaal Sulaiman. About 95 minutes. At American Airlines Theatre, 227 W. 42nd St., New York. fathambroadway.com.

White Girl in Danger, by Michael R. Jackson. Directed by Lileana Blain-Cruz. Choreography, Raja Feather Kelly; sets, Adam Rigg; costumes, Montana Levi Blanco; lighting, Jen Schriever; sound, Jonathan Deans; projections, Josh Higgason; music direction, Anessa Marie; orchestrations, Lynne Shankel. About 2 hours 50 minutes. With Liz Clark Brown, Vincent Jamal Hooper, Jennifer Fouché, Eric William Morris, Kayla Davion. At Tony Kiser Theater, 305 W. 43rd St., New York. 2st.com.

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