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Theatre in Review: I Can Get It for You Wholesale (Classic Stage Company)

Santino Fontana. Photo: Julieta Cervantes

"You're the catcher or the pitcher!" So sings Harry Bogen, and he doesn't mean baseball. Harry, the antihero of this 1962 musical, is a human switchblade in a cheap suit, determined to knife his way to the top of New York's garment industry, even if it takes six whole months. He has his reasons -- it's 1937 and the Depression is on; he is his mother's sole source of support -- but, really, his furious need to get ahead is its own justification. By the finale, there isn't a member of the supporting cast he hasn't betrayed. It's lonely at the top, especially when you've mowed down everyone who ever trusted you.

Talk about daring: In the same season that How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying offered audiences that cartoon corporate schemer J. Pierrepont Finch, I Can Get It for You Wholesale served up a genuine heel who lies and cheats his way to success -- and who, when caught red-handed, simply shrugs and starts over. When we meet him, Harry is an assistant shipping clerk, but not for long. His union is on strike and the rent is due, so he teams up with his pal Tootsie to start a scab operation, replacing his fellow workers. The money starts rolling in but Harry, convinced that shipping is for suckers, unloads the business on Tootsie for a cool ten grand, using it as seed money for Apex Modes, a move that lands him in the catbird seat. Keeping nice girl Ruthie Rivkin on the string when he needs to appear human, he makes time with Martha Mills, a Broadway performer who thinks love is a game, and she's playing for prizes. With Martha as his star model, Harry blows the bank on a champagne-and-caviar fashion launch that will make or bankrupt him, and the bet pays off. Soon, he's a penthouse dweller, but his overhead is high -- Martha likes lots of pretty things -- and his creative approach to bookkeeping gets him into trouble with his partners and the law.

Harry's reptilian nature -- he's a kind of Richard III of the schmatte set -- may be why the show underperformed originally, closing after ten months. At its best, the book, by Jerome Weidman based on his 1937 novel, is a diamond-hard look at capitalism unchained. Still, even in a revised version by Weidman's son John, himself a skilled musical theatre writer, I Can Get It for You Wholesale sometimes feels at odds with itself. Harry's many treacheries are expertly presented, yet he remains a small-time hustler with a dubious claim to our attention. The show tries to give him extra significance, framing his story in the ugly economic realities of the 1930s and calling up the specter of antisemitism, but such measures fail to convince; sometimes a goniff is just a goniff.

And, for all its original qualities, Harold Rome's rangy, ambitious score sometimes feels caught between a sour, trenchant reality and those bright Broadway lights. Even without Sid Ramin's stunning original orchestrations, many songs grab you by the lapels. "The Way Things Are," detailing Harry's dog-eat-dog philosophy, is a nervy, jazzy riff that dares you not to like it. In "Momma, Momma," he presents his mother with a series of ever-more-elaborate gifts, neatly compressing his initial rise to success into a few minutes of running time. "Too Soon," Mrs. Bogen's urgent warning to Ruthie that falling for Harry is asking for trouble, is a finely calibrated piece of understatement. "The Sound of Money," a slinky, rhythmically tricky getting-to-know-you duet for Harry and Martha, serves up sin with an insinuating syncopation. With their distinctively Jewish melodies, both "The Family Way" and "A Gift Today" showcase the professional family Harry assembles around himself.

Then again, the charming "When Gemini Meets Capricorn" almost turns Harry and Ruthie into conventional musical comedy ingenues. "Have I Told You Lately?" featuring Meyer, Harry's impossibly innocent head designer, and his wife, Blanche, is sentimental vaudeville. And "Miss Marmelstein," the frustrated secretary's lament -- a number that did great things for a certain Ms. Streisand -- is a comedy number so rip-roaring that it nearly rips the show's fabric. All these songs are delightful on their own terms -- the consistently underrated Rome was a master of his craft -- but thanks in part to them, I Can Get It for You Wholesale sometimes feels stranded in a no-man's-land between Seventh Avenue and Shubert Alley.

Still, it's hard not to be grateful for Trip Cullman's driving production with its cast of Broadway regulars (here giving their regards to 13th Street, home of CSC). Santino Fontana's choirboy looks and Teflon manner go a long way toward explaining why the people in Harry's orbit don't get wise to him sooner. Rebecca Naomi Jones effectively charts Ruthie's growing disillusionment with Harry, especially in the furious "On My Way to Love." Judy Kuhn is first-rate as Mrs. Bogen, a loving, but shrewd, observer of her son's way. ("He knows how much I help him," Ruthie says. "Harry's good at knowing who can help him," Mrs. Bogen replies. The mother always knows.)

If Adam Chanler-Berat and Sarah Steele are a little on the saccharin side as Meyer and Blanche, the rest of the supporting cast is appropriately tough as leather: Greg Hildreth as the salesman who exposes Harry's spendthrift ways; Joy Woods' Martha, disarmingly honest about her grasping nature; and Adam Grupper as an early victim of Harry's who decides if you can't beat 'em, join 'em. Seizing focus every chance she gets is Julia Lester as Marmelstein, Harry's terrifyingly efficient secretary, her I-mean-business visage incongruously wreathed in delicate Marcel waves, her booming New York accent strong enough to take the paint off the walls.

Embracing CSC's bare-bones aesthetic, set designer Mark Wendland provides a collection of rolling tables backed by a New York skyline made from boxes, spools, and other garment trade paraphernalia. It's a slightly cluttered setup that hems in the choreographer Ellenore Scott, whose dances keep bumping up against all that furniture. (When Harry picks up Martha and swings her around, you may wonder, nervously, if there's a doctor in the house.) Adam Honoré's lighting creates many compellingly layered looks but, in certain scenes, he arguably relies a little too much on floods of saturated color. Ann Hould-Ward's costumes are impeccable period creations, especially those Apex Mode originals; they're exactly the kind of tasteful mid-market designs someone like Meyer would turn out. (J. Jared Janas' wig, hair, and makeup designs also make a big contribution.) CSC is not an ideal acoustical environment by any means, but you wouldn't know it thanks to Sun Hee Kil's crystal-clear sound design.

I Can Get It for You Wholesale has been out of circulation for so long that it's hard to evaluate this revised version against the original. (Its only New York revival was at American Jewish Theatre in 1991, with Evan Pappas as Harry and a cast that included Carolee Carmello, Alix Korey, and Vicki Lewis.) The original opening number, the comic "I'm Not a Well Man," sung by Grupper's character, has been replaced by the tougher, but less memorable, "Somebody Else." But the second act now features "Grab Them While You Can/Love Is Not Enough," a counterpoint exercise that effectively tracks Martha and Ruthie's growing realism about Harry. Apparently, one of the show's major issues always was the lack of a suitable ending. The final number, "Eat a Little Something," is a hair-raising solo for Mrs. Bogen that, without saying directly, reveals how clearly she sees through her beloved son. But, because there's no signoff song for Harry, Weidman and company have cobbled together a new finale, made of reprises, to show how totally their protagonist has isolated himself from the people he once professed to love. It has a slightly tacked-on feeling, leaving one hungry for one final haymaker in a score full of them.

Still, if the creative team hasn't been able to solve all I Can Get It for You Wholesale's problems, they're giving it a first-class revival that every musical theatre fan will want to see. This new, rather more intimate, version bids fair to give the show a berth in the musical theatre repertory, where it rightfully belongs. If all musical also-rans were this good, the theatre would be a much, much happier place. --David Barbour

(31 October 2023)

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