By: Isa Goldberg
November 29, 2023: Harry Bogen, the central character in Jerome Weidman’s 1961 musical I Can Get It for You Wholesale (music and lyrics by Harold Rome), is something of an archetype of American literature. Straight from Weidman’s 1937 novel of the same name, Harry – the brash, restless Jewish kid growing up in New York City during the Depression – is also a character who arouses controversy.
This is the character of the self-loathing Jew that became popular in the mid to late twentieth century, through the novels of Saul Bellow and Philip Roth, among others. But as we know, it’s Wholesale that established Weidman’s prolific career.
Currently in revival at Classic Stage Company, the musical Wholesale hosts a diverse and gifted cast. No spoiler alert here – the show’s premiere in 1962 marked Barbara Streisand’s Broadway debut, in a supporting comedic role, with Elliot Gould as Harry, that raging savage of ambition.
But the early 60s were quite special in other ways, too. In 1962, John F. Kennedy became the youngest President in American history, and his optimism and courage heralded anew the era of Camelot. Sadly, in our time, Harry is a kind of everyman.
While in the 60s Harry might have impressed audiences as an obvious loser, the portrayal is more bittersweet today. As the show opens, an emotionally bruised youth, Harry (Victor De Paula Rocha) returns home, slouches into a kitchen chair and reluctantly eats his mother’s blintzes as she asks him what happened. And as always, he tells Mrs. Bogen (Judy Kuhn) that the other kids stole the money. Sitting in the audience, we may have to believe him, for the moment.
An unusual casting choice for the role of the adult Harry, Santino Fontana has a plumb resume for portraying the most likable and enjoyable of Broadway heroes – from the Dustin Hoffman role in the musical Tootsie, to the Prince in Cinderella. However, a brash, Jewish man – a gangster in the hurly burly garment district of the 1930’s – this is not a role we expect to see him in. In fact, it makes an interesting comment about duplicity, and deception. They’re hard to identify, and even harder to weed out.
To that end, Fontana carries the show. While Harry’s clearly an egotistical shyster, the actor pulls it off with innocence, as well as arrogance. Being two-faced doesn’t faze him.
To complete that sense of duplicity, some of the actors play more than one character. For instance, Rochas plays both the conniving young Harry and an earnest bat mitzvah boy, and Adam Grupper has the kind of boss’ mug you expect to see around…more than once.
Most outstanding as Harry’s love interest, Ruthie Rivkin, Rebecca Naomi Jones is beautiful and delicate, and her singing is delightful. Playing Harry’s enduring mother, Judy Kuhn is most understated. And in the role of Miss Marmelstein, Julie Lester (Into the Woods) brings her genuine sense of comedic twist.
As for Harold Rome’s music – the songs feel like typical ditties for the decades– light and fresh, with an easy sense of rhythm. As the play is performed on a three-quarters stage, the choreography is restricted by space and by proximity to the audience. Still, the show moves gracefully, and the ensemble songs are staged playfully.
Trip Cullman’s direction is steady and true to the original work, which retains its charms, but not much else. The production is at its best when those camp moments – the overstated boss, the annoyed secretary – camp on the action. Hearing Lester sing Miss Marmelstein makes the show well worth seeing. But regardless, the story still feels a little tired, and so does the message.
I Can Get It For You Wholesale ***1/2
Classic Stage Company
Lynn F. Angelson Theater
136 East 13th Street
New York, NY 10003
Run time: 2 hours and 30 minutes, including one 15-minute intermission
Through December 17, 2023
Photography: Julieta Cervantes