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I Can Get It For You Wholesale

A person holding a person in a dress

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Joy Woods and Santino Fontana (Photo: Julieta Cervantes)

I Can Get It For You Wholesale

By Marc Miller

If Rodgers and Hart's Pal Joey Evans were to hop the 20th Century Limited from Chicago to New York and trek a few blocks up from Penn Station to the heart of the 1930s Garment District, you can bet he'd turn into Harry Bogen. Harry, the antihero of I Can Get It for You Wholesale, now being given a rare and quite pungent revival at Classic Stage Company, is very much a Pal Joey transplanted to the Jewish Bronx. Quick-thinking, resourceful, charming to the ladies and he knows it, Harry sees life as a game of Get Ahead; whoever gets bruised or exploited in his climb up the ladder is a sucker and a loser. Remind you of anyone?

Harry's ruthlessness, much commented on in Wholesale's original run in 1962, is unsettling, and a self-contained critique of capitalism run amok. And it is, I think, what keeps Wholesale from being a great musical. Very solidly built, with a book by Jerome Weidman based on his 1937 novel and music and lyrics by Harold Rome, it lashes out at unchecked greed and holds one's interest even as it unfolds a narrative we know isn't going to end well. Who is there for the audience to root for? Certainly not Harry.

A person in a suit

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Santino Fontana (Photo: Julieta Cervantes)

Fortunately, he's being played by Santino Fontana, in splendid voice, so at least we can understand why so many around him throw such trust and affection at him. There's Ruthie (usually Rebecca Naomi Jones, Ephie Aardema at this performance), adoring of Harry since childhood and willing to lend him her life's savings if it will help him build a fashion business. There's Martha (Joy Woods), a svelte Broadway star-as amoral as he is, but willing to be his mistress in exchange for a few pricey baubles. Business partner Meyer (Adam Chanler-Berat, splendid) will swallow Harry's lies whole and pay dearly for it, while other business partner Teddy (Greg Hildreth) will grow wise to Harry's cons and wriggle away.

Then there's Mrs. Bogen (Judy Kuhn), Harry's mom, an interesting character. She loves her son, certainly; but she's aware of his moral lapses and the zero chance he'll ever reform. "Too soon don't give your heart away," she sings touchingly to Ruthie, confident that there's a better match for her out there than her own son. And near curtain, trying conflictingly to comfort and not comfort a fallen Harry, she offers, "Here, eat this. I made it, just as I made you." She birthed a monster, and she knows it. Kuhn plays Mrs. Bogen as a shrewd judge of character, or lack of character; no cheap Yiddishe-momma jokes here.

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Julia Lester (Photo: Julieta Cervantes)

If anybody walks off with the show, and she does, it's Julia Lester, as Harry's faithful secretary, Miss Marmelstein. The role won a young lady named Barbra Streisand a lot of attention in 1962, particularly with her second-act showstopper "Miss Marmelstein" (here transferred to the first), and may it only do the same for Lester. A crack comedienne with a trumpet of a voice, she imparts the same knowingness and flawless timing to Yetta Tessye Marmelstein that she brought to her sensational Red Riding Hood in the recent Into the Woods revival. Long may she wave.

This Wholesale has been solidly, cleverly constructed. Crucially, John Weidman has tinkered with his dad's libretto, introducing one important plot point, along with several instances of trendy fourth-wall breaking. A prologue reveals a teenage Harry (Victor De Paula Rocha), doing menial Seventh Avenue delivery work, being assaulted, robbed, and called an ugly name by a local antisemitic tough. So maybe that's what instilled this merciless screw-them-all philosophy in him. Smart move, but it still doesn't justify Harry's subsequent selfishness and destructiveness. A couple of blocks away during Wholesale's original run, another amoral schemer, J. Pierrepont Finch, was succeeding in business without really trying. But he had Robert Morse's dimpled smile and general adorableness. Fontana's too honest to play Harry that way; as a result, as Harry rises, the best we can do is anticipate a lot of damage is going to be done, and there's no fun in that.

Harold Rome was a brilliant, underappreciated composer-lyricist. He could write French (Fanny, his masterpiece), Old West (Destry Rides Again), or labor-lefty (Pins and Needles), but was especially comfortable with the Jewish working classes (Wish You Were Here, this). It's a way-above-average score, rich in minor-key semiticism and capped by a disturbing, Brechtian evilness-of-capitalism lament, "What Are They Doing to Us Now?," masterfully led by a powerhouse Lester. In 5/4, yet.

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(Photo: Julieta Cervantes) (Photo: Julieta Cervantes)

Not everything about CSC's production is top-drawer. I wasn't that taken with Mark Wendland's set, which consists mainly of tables and chairs, being furiously arranged and rearranged by cast members, and limiting Ellenore Scott's choreography mostly to people leaping over them. Adam Honor 's lighting is on the dark side, and while I applauded the period authenticity of Ann Hould-Ward's costumes, I felt cheated by the Act One climax, a fashion parade that consists of only one fashion. David Chase's adaptation and arrangement of Rome's score is excellent, including the addition of a couple of salient Rome trunk tunes, and Jacinth Greywoode's music direction and arrangements, if not up to Sid Ramin's originals, afford about as full-orchestra sound as you'll ever hear off-Broadway. Trip Cullman directs fluidly, with an emphasis on the changing moods and loyalties in Harry Bogen's orbit.


I Can Get It for You Wholesale is a scalding, scolding indictment of the damage that gets done when power is invested in the greedy and unscrupulous, and well worth a couple of hours of your time. Just expect to walk out under a cloud.

I Can Get It for You Wholesale 
At Classic Stage Company

Lynn F. Angelson Theater, 136 E. 13th St.
Running time: 2 hours 30 minutes 

Through December 17