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I Can Get It for You Wholesale

Theatre Review by James Wilson - October 30, 2023

Rebecca Naomi Jones and Santino Fontana
Photo by Julieta Cervantes
The American musical theatre pantheon is teeming with cads, grifters and swindlers. Pal Joey's Joey Evans, Music Man's's Harold Hill, How to Succeed's J. Pierrepont Finch, and The Producers' Max Bialystock are just some of the most familiar musical double dealers and scoundrels. A much lesser-known figure, Harry Bogen, the conniving and backstabbing central character of I Can Get It for You Wholesale, however, out-cads, out-grifts, and out-swindles all of his fellow deceivers. With a revised book and some tinkering with Harold Rome's score, Classic Stage Company's bold and thrilling production of the 1962 musical makes a strong case for giving Bogen a more prominent position in the gallery of singing and dancing rogues. Such exquisite despicableness should not go unrewarded.

With astute direction by Trip Cullman, this Wholesale deftly balances the exceedingly dark overtones with the lighter musical comedy conventions. The book by Jerome Weidman (and based on his novel that was the basis of a film version starring Susan Hayward as the gender-switched central character) has been "reimagined" by his son John Weidman. The new book, with one dropped song ("I'm Not a Well Man") and a few added from Rome's trunk, has a revised ending, but it stays true to the spirit of the original.

As Harry Bogen, a part originally played by Elliott Gould, Santino Fontana offers a richly textured and multi-layered performance. In addition to his impressive musical showmanship, Fontana's natural charm and likeability make it abundantly clear why this strike-breaking, two-timing, back-stabbing entrepreneur can ascend so quickly in New York's garment industry of the 1930s. There are also enough clues to show that Bogen's monstrous behavior is a result of the cut-throat capitalist machine and the ruthless factory owners. A prologue, for instance, shows Bogen as a child laborer (in a moving performance by Victor de Paula Rocha, who plays several roles), living in poverty in the Bronx and then brutally beaten by a young hooligan. Make no mistake, though, Fontana's Bogen is as barbarous as they come, but such barbarousness is rarely as utterly enthralling.

Bogen lives with his mother (a luminous Judy Kuhn), whom he showers with more and more lavish gifts as he climbs his way to the top of the manufacturing ladder. He is (both financially and emotionally) supported by Ruthie Rivkin (exquisitely sung and beautifully acted by Rebecca Naomi Jones), a devoted and unwavering sweetheart. When Bogen goes into business with a pair of trusting and loyal partners, Teddy Asch (Greg Hildreth, winningly imperious) and Meyer Bushkin (Adam Chanler-Berat, who gives a beguiling and heartbreaking performance as the naïve and trusting dress designer), the depths of his unscrupulousness become clearer. He steals from the company, has an illicit affair with Broadway star Martha Mills (a lithe and wonderful Joy Woods), and insinuates himself in Meyer's family and earns their misplaced trust. (Sarah Steele is terrific as Blanche, Meyer's trusting and optimistic wife.)

The Cast
Photo by Julieta Cervantes
Rounding out the cast of characters, we have a host of managers, clerks, and buyers in the industry, who help establish the hustle and grind of New York's garment district. (Adam Grupper, Eddie Cooper, Hayley Podschun, and Darron Hayes are all excellent.)

As anyone reading this is probably aware, the original production of Wholesale is best known for Barbra Streisand's star-making performance as the harried and big-worded secretary, Miss Marmelstein. In his New York Times review, Howard Taubman wrote, "The evening's find is Barbara [sic] Streisand, a girl with an oafish expression, a loud irascible voice and an arpeggiated laugh." In the most anticipated performance of the evening, Julia Lester steps into the role and more than holds her own. As Miss Marmelstein, she offers fresh interpretations of Harold Rome's songs, for which he wrote the music and lyrics. She wrings every bit of humor from Rome's iconic "Miss Marmelstein," and even more impressively, she leads a devastating ensemble song, "What Are They Doing to Us Now?" The song is a passionate and powerful lament about the unrelenting suffering caused by corrupt and remorseless rulers, and with its Jewish folk music intonations, the number is chilling and positively frightening, particularly in these dark and dangerous times. Adam Honoré's dramatic lighting makes the performance even more gripping by assailing the audience directly.

Under Jacinth Greywoode's musical direction (and Greywoode also orchestrated for a six-member orchestra) and David Chase's adapted and arranged scoring, Rome's songs are lovingly presented. (Kudos also to Sun Hee Kil's sound design.) Many of them, such as "Momma, Momma," "The Family Way," and "A Gift Today" contain motifs from Jewish folk music and sung prayer ballads. Others, like "When Gemini Meets Capricorn" and "Have I Told You Lately," have their roots in Tin Pan Alley. Ellenore Scott's choreography, which uses elements of ballet, soft shoe, and jazz, keeps the sweeping narrative in near constant motion.

Mark Wendland's scenic design consists primarily of work tables meticulously lined up within a cold and forbidding factory setting. The initial impression is reminiscent of the sewing tables in The Pajama Game, but the company moves and shifts them to create any number of New York City locales. (The New York skyline constructed of textile rudiments is a particularly nice touch.) Ann Hould-Ward's costumes and J. Jared Janas's hair, wigs, and makeup designs are period perfect, and if this were a larger production, it would have been fun to see what they could do with the first act's suspense-filled fashion show. (Cullman and the designers offer a clever way around the additional costs the scene would entail.)

Later this week, audiences will have a chance to connect with another familiar cad, Joey Evans. One can only hope that the new version of Pal Joey is as exuberant, electrifyingly performed, and as profoundly provocative as CSC's I Can Get It for You Wholesale.

I Can Get It for You Wholesale
Through December 17, 2023
Classic Stage Company, Lynn F. Angelson Theater, 136 E 13th Street
Tickets online and current performance schedule: