Rarely seen since its Broadway premiere in 1962, the dark musical comedy I Can Get It for You Wholesale by Jerome Weidman (book) and Harold Rome (music and lyrics), adapted for the stage from Weidman’s 1937 novel of the same name, is now playing a limited-engagement Off-Broadway revival at Classic Stage Company, with a revised book by the writer’s son John Weidman.
Directed by Trip Cullman, the story, set in New York’s Garment District during the Great Depression in the 1930s, follows the journey of antihero Harry Bogen from the anti-Semitic attacks and ethnic slurs he experienced in his impoverished childhood in the Bronx to his work as an ambitious shipping clerk in midtown Manhattan and his rise as a strike-breaker, unscrupulous entrepreneur, and extravagant spender, who uses and abuses his trusting family, friends, and partners to get ahead. But do the pains of his youth justify his fraudulent business activity and betrayal of those closest to him as an adult? If not, it makes it hard to care about him or to see the humor in his story.
Santino Fontana stars as Harry, who envisions his memories of being bullied as a kid, delivers direct-address explanations of his motivations and excuses for his conduct to the audience, charms everyone with his good ideas, investment opportunities, and expensive gifts, then scams them all to maintain his lifestyle of conspicuous consumption and power. Judy Kuhn as the mother he loves recognizes his problematic behavior, warns Ruthie – the trusting and devoted woman he’s been stringing along, cheating on, and bilking, played by Rebecca Naomi Jones – though she doesn’t listen till it’s too late, while Mrs. Bogen continues to accept her son’s ill-gotten presents of fine clothing, jewelry, and fur.
They’re not the only easy targets or enablers, which include his supportive business partner and friend Meyer Bushkin, his wife Blanche, and their son Sheldon, portrayed respectively by Adam Chanler-Berat, Sarah Steele, and Victor de Paula Rocha (who doubles as the young Harry in the early go-back scenes), and his loyal assistant Miss Marmelstein (the role that launched the Broadway career of the nineteen-year-old show-stealing Barbra Streisand), portrayed here by Julia Lester, who brings the biggest comedic touch to the musical with a riotous rendition of her character’s eponymous number and its complaints of being overworked and underappreciated, delivered in an over-the-top New York accent.
Other significant players in Harry’s felonious climb up the ladder are Joy Woods as his gold-digging mistress Martha Mills, a Broadway star, model for his fashions, and recipient of his lavish gifts and monetary generosity, who, like Ruthie, has unrealistic hopes of marriage but doesn’t hesitate to move on when bankruptcy and legal charges loom and a more lucrative opportunity arises; Eddie Cooper as Tootsie Maltz and Greg Hildreth as Teddy Asch, two of his duped associates, the latter of whom begins to question his illicit handling of the business’s finances; and Adam Grupper as Maurice Pulvermacher, his original boss who reappears with a surprise at the end. Rounding out the ensemble are Darren Hayes and Hayley Podschun appearing in multiple roles, including the uppity buyer Miss Springer.
Rome’s score, arranged and adapted by David Chase, with music direction and orchestrations by Jacinth Greywoode, combines everything from upbeat love duets like “When Gemini Meets Capricorn” and “Have I Told You Lately” with the influence of Jewish folk music and ceremonies, though none of the songs, all well sung, is as memorable as “Miss Marmelstein” – thanks to Streisand and Lester.
Ellenore Scott’s choreography also offers a mix of styles, including inexplicable balletic movements at the beginning, abstract stylized segments, ballroom dance, Jewish traditions, and over-crowded full-company numbers that don’t fit comfortably in the small performance space, with too many chairs, tables, and cast members to maneuver smoothly and comfortably, and close-up front-row seating on three sides that leaves them squeezing by to avoid stepping on the audience or bumping into them and the furnishings.
The minimal set by Mark Wendland, with sound by Sun Hee Kil, shifts from the garment factory to the characters’ homes to the nightclub where Harry dances with Miss Mills via the continual rearrangement of the multiple tables and chairs. Adam Honoré’s lighting tends more towards abstraction than naturalism, and period-style costumes by Ann Hould-Ward, with hair, wigs, and make-up by J. Jared Janas, are omitted from the climactic scene of the high-budget runway show of Harry’s new women’s line; we hear the emcee’s commentary but never see the models or clothing – an odd choice in a musical about a big spender in the fashion industry, centered in NYC’s Garment District.
While the cast of I Can Get It for You Wholesale skillfully delivers the personalities and musical numbers as written, the characters are largely unlikeable or incredibly gullible, making it difficult to empathize with them, and, for me, the intended comedic tone of the show doesn’t gel with the serious cautionary message or a reimagined conclusion that’s far from funny.
Running Time: Approximately two hours and 30 minutes, including an intermission.
I Can Get It for You Wholesale plays through Sunday, December 17, 2023, at Classic Stage Company, 136 East 13th Street, NYC. For tickets (priced at $107, including fees), go online. Masks are recommended but not required.