Pre-Broadway Review: ‘Moonshine: That Hee Haw Musical’

The long-running, country-flavored TV variety show spawns a musical comedy that mixes cornpone humor and snarky satire.

Mackenzie Bell, P. J. Benjamin, Kevin Cahoon, John Campione, Ken Clark, Travis Kirk Coombs, Justin Guarini, Rose Hemingway, Julie Johnson, Katherine McMillan; Harris Milgrim; Rob Morrison, Ryah Nixon, Adam Perry, Aaron Ramey.

Falling somewhere between a spirited homage and a snarky burlesque, “Moonshine: That Hee Haw Musical” is a Southern-fried musical farce that may be embraced by nostalgic fans of its source material — the long-running TV variety show aptly described as “a cornpone ‘Laugh In’” — but rejected by others for its broad streaks of blue humor. Currently on view as a world premiere production at the Dallas Theater Center, it boasts major contributions from Broadway veterans as well as noted Nashville tunesmiths Brandy Clark and Shane McAnally, and is being hyped as a project bound for New York. But much like the original “Hee Haw,” which lasted just two seasons on CBS before its decades-long run in syndication, this hyperactive hodgepodge is more likely to do most of its crowd-pleasing far from the Great White Way.

Seasoned sitcom scribe Robert Horn has cobbled together a book that allows ample room for the sort of down-home comic riffing that was a hallmark of the “Hee Haw” series, even while advancing the thin but serviceable plot. Misty Mae (Rose Hemingway), a lovely small-town girl with wanderlust in her heart, decides to leave rural Kornfield Kounty for a chance to spread her wings way off in The Big City (i.e., Tampa, Florida). She reluctantly leaves behind close friends, her beloved Grandpa (P.J. Benjamin), and Bucky Jr. (Ken Clark), her understandably upset long-time sweetheart, and fortuitously lands a job as a TV weather forecaster. Unfortunately, she also attracts the attention of Gordy (Justin Guarini), a slick operator who’s all the more eager to woo Misty when he divines that her Grandpa’s homestead could be profitably mined for gemstones.

The rest of the narrative has something to do with Misty’s journey home to Kornfield Kounty with Gordy, something else to do with Bucky Jr.’s prideful reluctance to win back Misty, and rather too much to do with repeated single-entendre jokes about the “jugs” used by Lulu (Ryah Nixon), the amply endowed moonshine merchant who is Misty’s best friend and close confidant.

Right from the start, as Kornfield Kounty denizens proudly proclaim in song that “We’re all straight and we’re all white,” it’s clear that the makers of “Moonshine” have set for themselves the tricky task of simultaneously celebrating and satirizing the kind of quirky countrified characters that populated the 1969-1992 “Hee Haw” show. Similarly mixed signals are given by the lead players, whose broad performances suggest they were encouraged by director Gary Griffin (“The Color Purple”) to none-too-subtly comment on their characters while playing them.

But “Moonshine” works best, and earns its biggest laughs, when it veers away from wink-wink, nudge-nudge jokes about the sexual peccadillos and xenophobic attitudes of rural stereotypes — many of whom may be the progeny of kissing cousins — and ladles out heaping helpings of the innocuous cornball humor that was the original series’ stock in trade. (“I got this for my wife.” “Seems like a pretty good trade.”)

Arguably the only character in “Moonshine” in sync with the smarter-than-they-look yokels that popped up in the “Hee Haw” TV cornfield: Junior Junior, an idiot savant (with the accent, believe it or not, on savant) perfectly played with just a smidge of bemused awareness by Kevin Cahoon. Junior chronically takes a long time — specifically, the time it takes to deliver three or four free-form non sequiturs — to make his point. But getting there is all the fun.

Clark and McAnally provide an uneven but largely enjoyable mix of ballads, duets and country-flavored show tunes, along with a tongue-in-cheeky love song — “Misty,” repeatedly sung by the game Guarini (an “American Idol” alumnus), and best described as resembling an ’80s-style Top 40 chart-topper as reconstituted by Justin Timberlake. On the other hand, there is “Shucked,” an Act I curtain-closer that will move some members of the audience to howling laughter, and make others shift uncomfortably in their seats, with nonstop naughty allusions to a certain four-letter word.

Denis Jones’ witty choreography impressively amps the high-energy quotient throughout the Dallas Theater Center production. John Lee Beatty’s amusingly redneck-centric set design is highlighted by a curtain emblazoned with what appear to be two giant red bandanas. You can’t get much more country than that.

Pre-Broadway Review: 'Moonshine: That Hee Haw Musical'

Dallas Theater Center; 496 seats; $99 top. Opened and reviewed Sept. 18, 2015. Running time: TWO HOURS, 15 MIN.

Production: A presentation by Dallas Theater Center in association with Opry Entertainment and Fox Musicals of a musical in two acts with book by Robert Horn and music and lyrics by Brandy Clark and Shane McAnally, inspired by the “Hee Haw” television series.

Creative: Directed by Gary Griffin. Choreography by Denis Jones. Sets, John Lee Beatty; costumes, Mara Blumenfeld; lighting, Philip S. Rosenberg; sound, John Shivers; hair and makeup, David Bova; animal trainer, William Berloni; music direction, Dominick Amendum; music supervision, arrangements and orchestrations, Stephen Oremus; production stage manager, Timothy R. Semon.

Cast: Mackenzie Bell, P. J. Benjamin, Kevin Cahoon, John Campione, Ken Clark, Travis Kirk Coombs, Justin Guarini, Rose Hemingway, Julie Johnson, Katherine McMillan; Harris Milgrim; Rob Morrison, Ryah Nixon, Adam Perry, Aaron Ramey.

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