'I Can Get It For You Wholesale' review — musical, like its protagonist, desperately tries to have it all
Read our review of I Can Get It For You Wholesale off Broadway, starring Santino Fontana, Judy Kuhn, and Julia Lester, currently running through December 17.
It’s incredible that the cultural legacy of I Can Get It For You Wholesale — the 1962 musical by Jerome Weidman (book) and Harold Rome (music and lyrics), loosely based on Weidman’s novel — is fairly limited to the fact that it marked Barbra Streisand's Broadway debut. It seems particularly ironic given that the show’s primary thematic anxiety is legacy itself, situated in the context of a world hostile to Jews.
The first scene depicts protagonist Harry Bogen (Santino Fontana) looking back at his younger self being bullied by an anti-Semite. When he returns home, something about the experience, and the fact that little besides his mother (Judy Kuhn) and her cooking comfort him, fuels a fire that will soon overwhelm him.
In Trip Cullman’s new production at Classic Stage Company, Harry is as ambitious an entrepreneur as almost anyone on the stage these days, making deals to start businesses before he has the funds — and selling out his friends along the way. That the actors don their final accessories as they first enter makes it easy to imagine that everyone could have gotten ready entirely on stage, the audience watching them transform. Because that’s what Harry wants: transformation.
He’ll buy his mother mink stoles and, in his pursuit to make his dress company a fashion giant, butter up buyers with caviar and champagne. He truly wants to reenvision himself as a bright star in the firmament of the American Dream. Wholesale casts him as a proto-Talented Mr. Ripley in the way he wants to use charm offensive to get what he wants, while maintaining a more agreeable guise.
He’s a scammer, robbing one friend to pay another, playing with family friend Ruthie’s (Rebecca Naomi Jones) heart while succumbing to equally materialistic actress Martha Mills (Joy Woods). But, as his spending fails to add up, the world starts to close in on Harry's dreams of having it all.
Weidman’s book (now revised by his son, John Weidman) and Rome’s score often seem at odds with each other, and the show's intended tone is frequently unclear. While the show is increasingly aware of Bogen’s dubiousness, there’s a jovial quality to the music that doesn’t gel with the seriousness of a story about misplaced racial and class trauma fueling cutthroat ambition.
That Wholesale ties itself to Jewish families also serves as an obstacle for a more coherent show. Is it that American industrialism and modernity and Jewish family values are incompatible? Or that Harry simply abandoned those values to assimilate? Regardless, Fontana nails the desperation of wanting to escape where you came from and making that desire work overtime, but he is less charming than hoped. If the character succeeds in convincing everyone (until he can’t) that he’s trustworthy, Harry’s all-consuming drive papers over his appeal.
Conversely, Woods is the show’s icon. Every time she sets foot on stage, you hope the gold dust from her stardom rubs off on you. In “The Sound of Money” alone, Woods, with her gorgeous wingspan and blinding seductive appeal, makes the trip to the theatre worth every cent.
Photo credit: Joy Woods and Santino Fontana in I Can Get It For You Wholesale. (Photo by Julieta Cervantes)
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