In the year The 1962 musical “I Can Get It For You” was a vulture critique of capitalism as a rag trade comedy, now known as the Broadway show that gave Barbra Streisand her 19-year-old debut. She was – and the casting of her big number “Miss Marmelstein” was filled with wonderful and youthful creativity – her novel by Jerome Weidman was a small and funny role in the dark story. Her singing is by Harold Roam to stunning and multifaceted effect.
The clash of styles probably contributed to the show’s meh run. In Weidman’s novel, the main character, garment industry outsider Harry Bogen, is an unrepentant serpent, an unknowing feeder of moral decadence. (Along the way, he broke a strike, lied to his mother, cheated on his friends, twice robbed his girlfriend and his partners.) Despite the antiheroes of “Pal Joe” and “Carousel” in the 1940s — and “How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying,” when “Mass” opened soon after Made a hit – Bogen was deemed too terrible for Broadway, so Weidman cast him. Casting Elliott Gould called for his extra flair.
A revision of “Wholesale Business,” which opened Monday at Classic Stage Company, is partly to address the tone problem, and who better than Widman’s son, John, a fine musical librettist himself. (Two of Sondheim’s greatest hits include “Pacific Overtures” and “Assassins.”) Harry (Santino Fontana) returns to the novel’s first-person narrative to work his magic directly on the audience. (Fontana almost succeeds because she’s charming.) Weidman cut one song, moved two, added three from Rome’s record, and performed many others. Any hint of redemption at the end is stripped away.
It’s a shame that the show directed by Tripp Cullman is still not together. The bones are too big for the 196-seat Classic Stage venue, which makes the story feel as if it’s packed into a very small dresser. Likewise, the music doubles wonderfully for six players. The violinist plays the viola naturally enough, but also the drums, rarely at the same time.
This is no problem as the show’s best singers deliver its best songs: Judy Kuhn delivers “Too Soon” as Harry’s Yiddish mother. Rebecca Naomi Jones as his long-suffering girlfriend, touching “Who Knew?”; And Joey Woods, as the gold digger, where he trades, “What’s in it for me?” A cynical dulet. (with Greg Hildreth as salesman). And Julia Lester’s clarion on “Miss Marmelstein” remembers Streisand without a copy. Still, the lack of orchestral texture makes the songs, punctuated by a book that is the show’s most epic chapter, feel like a one-off rather than a score.
Rome wrote “Pins and Needles” for his first Broadway production in 1936. Admittedly, the numbers like this and that were always indistinguishable sets. (It was produced by the Garment Workers Union, which was about injustice in the textile trade.) “Mass” is more ambitious than what you’d hear on the Sid Ramin Orchestra’s original recording album. In that format, Roma’s liberal blend of smoky jazz combines with shtetl cantillations of klezmer-like rhythms, bongos and blue notes. And it’s hard to resist Yiddish-influenced lyrics like “Treasure” and “Shvits.”
But in trying to strike a balance between its various styles, the musical never quite manages to be too many things at once: a hero-in-the-heels romance, a romanticized Jewish show about Jewish misbehavior, a Broadway comedic understatement. Near the end, “What are they doing to us now?” – A Frustrated Chorale by Mark Blitzstein – advises future generations to “don’t be born.”
This amendment will not solve those problems and will exacerbate others. Harry’s new narrative, though clever, exacerbates the stylistic mishmash. Sometimes the schmaltz is so thick that we think we’re in Anatevka in “Fiddler on the Roof” instead of New York City 30 years from now. (Eleanor Scott’s choreography, including an impromptu prologue ballet, exits Jerome Robbins as soon as the water runs out.) Cullman’s production, set by Mark Wendland on minimal tables and chairs, dimly lit by Adam Honore, is often hard to follow, and you’re poor when you need richness the most. The climactic fashion show at the end of Act 1 takes place offstage.
To be fair, the update did make some improvements. The songs pulled from Rome’s archives are excellent, especially the contrasting solos (brilliantly put together by composer David Chase) in which girlfriend Ruth and gold-digger Martha decide how to deal with Harry’s empty hopes. Ruthie now realizes that “love is not enough” and moves on; Martha drops golden eggs and catches them “catch me while I can.”
That’s the dichotomy of “bulk”, running then hard-boiled. It is difficult to know how to crack.
I can get you in bulk
Through Dec. 17 at Classic Stage Company, Manhattan; classicstage.org Running time: 2 hours 30 minutes.