Friday , July 19 2024
Rebecca Naomi Jones, Santino Fontana in 'I Can Get it For You Wholesale' at Classic Stage
Rebecca Naomi Jones, Santino Fontana in 'I Can Get it For You Wholesale' (Photo credit: Julieta Cervantes)

Theater Review (NYC): ‘I Can Get it For You Wholesale’

In this time of fraud, scam artists and grifting, what better revival to present than I Can Get it For You Wholesale? Initially produced in 1962 with growing fanfare that sealed Barbra Streisand as a future star, the musical has been reworked and runs at Classic Stage (CSC) until December 17.

The production sports revisions to the book by John Weidman, son of original writer Jerome Weidman, who had adapted his dark, titular novel for the stage. John Weidman has removed, added and moved around songs from Harold Rome’s original score. The revisions darken the musical and leach out the comedic. Weidman, Trip Cullman’s incisive direction and Ellenore Scott’s choreography draw parallels to our time. For its themes, currency, and acting, the musical is a must-see.

‘I Can Get it For You Wholesale’: Selling His Soul for Success

With minimalist sets, using tables and chairs to frame time and place, Cullman offers an edgy, clear-eyed perspective on the devolution of the musical’s antihero. Unscrupulous, conniving Harry Bogen, portrayed exquisitely by Santino Fontana, determines to stop at nothing to get rich. If ambition moves mountains, Harry’s ambition moves mountain ranges. Especially during the Depression, when the musical takes place, one needs talent and drive to get ahead in the garment district of New York City.

I Can Get It For You Wholesale at Classic Stage
Photo credit: Julieta Cervantes

In various segments of the CSC revival, Bogen directly addresses the audience, engaging us with soothing humor, well-meaning authenticity and oodles of charm. First, he familiarizes us with his impoverished single-parent beginnings. Avidly empathizing, we follow him and his loving relationship with his mother (Judy Kuhn).

We appreciate the young Bogen accepting responsibility to provide for his family. Discrimination against Jews forces them to “stick together” and produces the difficulties in the Bogens’ lives. Though Harry tries to hustle to earn more money, bullies pick on him and rob him. Thus, he learns early that to get ahead one must be clever and circumvent expected ethical and social behaviors. Interestingly, his mother’s love and encouragement only solidify his determination. With everything he does, he plans to get over. Using the corruption he admires, he “beats” the world at its own corrupt game. Never the patsy, he suckers others.

Refusing to Allow Exploitation

In the social context of the “rag trade,” as an adult, Harry refuses to be exploited by his Jewish boss (Adam Grupper). Instead, he breaks a strike he once advocated and “screws” the workers. Then, engaging his buddies (Greg Hildreth, Adam Chanler-Berat), he starts his own company. Invariably, he stabs his boss in the face. As Bogen sings to his friend, he’s a “pitcher,” not a “catcher. Slyly fronting with “authentic” good will, Bogen massages everyone with his humor and smooth-talking. Meanwhile, the “loans” he gets from them, he rarely pays back.

Bogen’s “love of money” propels his behavior with “friends” and women he professes to care for. Though Mom clearly centers his heart, he lies to himself and her. Caught up in his “success,” he breaks her heart, and we watch as she lets him. To keep hope alive in both of them, she encourages him to eat her blintzes when he comes to her for comfort. Never does she counsel him to select morality over money. She blindly assumes he does.

Duping Ruthie

Likewise, Harry dupes his main love interest, Ruthie Rivken (the spectacular Rebecca Naomi Jones). Borrowing money he never pays back, he strings her along until she learns of his affair with a Broadway starlet (Joy Woods). Ironically, Jones and Woods sing a duet (“Grab Them While You Can/Love Is Not Enough”). Their powerful revelations about Bogen turn them against him. Cullman stages the duet effectively, having Woods and Jones at opposite corners of the playing space.

Though the music lacks grist overall, the performers do justice to the stronger songs, like Jones’ uplifting ballad “On My Way to Love.” As she defines her character’s direction, we understand how Ruthie moves within herself to dump Bogen. In another bravura performance, Woods sings “The Sound of Money.” Attracted to money, like Harry, she wins him over. However, he loses his soul as together, they destroy any decency left within them.

Bogen’s Judaic Values Vanish by the Musical’s Conclusion

All semblance of Bogen’s Judaic upbringing and morality vanishes by the end of the musical. Fontana brilliantly conveys Bogen’s occluding soul, loaded heavily with lies and darkness. Above all, his performance, filled with nuance and acute attention to detail, embodies the lyric, “What money makes, money takes away.”

Notably, Julia Lester as Harry’s secretary, Miss Marmelstein, shines in two powerhouse numbers, “Miss Marmelstein” and “What Are They Doing to Us Now?” In additional noteworthy performances Adam Chanler-Berat and Sarah Steele, as Bogen’s partner and his wife, portray the majesty of Judaism. The couple convey the morality, love, goodness and kindness of Judaic values lived sincerely. Gracious, loving, honorable, they represent everything desolate Harry loses.

The Majesty of Judaism

In contrast to to Bogen, their loving family holds. Though Bogen has money, he loses his soul, his family, his dignity, his good name. An outcast from Judaism and family, his corrupt materialism ruins everything it touches. The scriptural theme “the love of money is the root of all evil” is in focus in CSC’s revival. Additionally, Cullman’s conceptualizations stand against everything defined as success by the meretricious, rapacious culture.

With Cullman’s precise staging, excellent at the conclusion, we understand the seminal warning themes of I Can Get it For You Wholesale. Though the imperfections of the production (the fashion show is held offstage) reveal an “Off-Broadway” look, the musical’s stylization fits the themes. The arc of development and characterizations clearly reveal what profit Bogen receives from gaining the world’s values. The musical sardonically reminds us about focusing on materialism and religious-prosperity messages to the exclusion of humanity and “loving thy neighbor.” Painful, dark, frightening, the production enlightens and emboldens us to be vigilant against honey-tongued fraudsters, scammers, con artists, and politicos.

Kudos to the Creative Team

David Chase’s adaptation and arrangements and Jacinth Greywoode’s music direction and orchestrations both deserve praise. So do Mark Wendland’s scenic design, Ann Hould-Ward’s costume design, Adam Honore’s lighting design, Sun Hee Kil’s sound design, and J. Jared Janas’ hair, wig and makeup design. Each artist cohered with Cullman’s vision for this work’s style and sober tone. Ultimately, Cullman’s perspective emphasizes the themes, making them current. Finally, Fontana and the performers are smashing and powerful together.

I Can Get it For You Wholesale is at Classic Stage Company, 136 East 13 St., until December 17.

About Carole Di Tosti

Carole Di Tosti, Ph.D. is a published writer, playwright, novelist, poet. She owns and manages three well-established blogs: 'The Fat and the Skinny,' 'All Along the NYC Skyline' (https://caroleditosti.com/) 'A Christian Apologists' Sonnets.' She also manages the newly established 'Carole Di Tosti's Linchpin,' which is devoted to foreign theater reviews and guest reviews. She contributed articles to Technorati (310) on various trending topics from 2011-2013. To Blogcritics she has contributed 583+ reviews, interviews on films and theater predominately. Carole Di Tosti also has reviewed NYBG exhibits and wine events. She guest writes for 'Theater Pizzazz' and has contributed to 'T2Chronicles,' 'NY Theatre Wire' and other online publications. She covers NYC trending events and writes articles promoting advocacy. She professionally free-lanced for TMR and VERVE for 1 1/2 years. She was a former English Instructor. Her published dissertation is referenced in three books, two by Margo Ely, Ph.D. Her novel 'Peregrine: The Ceremony of Powers' will be on sale in January 2021. Her full length plays, 'Edgar,' 'The Painter on His Way to Work,' and 'Pandemics or How Maria Caught Her Vibe' are being submitted for representation and production.

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