“Why is it always Miss Marmelstein?”, a frustrated secretary asks towards the beginning of Act II in I Can Get It For You Wholesale. It’s an apt question. This largely forgotten early-sixties musical is generally remembered not for its book, score, direction, or choreography. It’s not even remembered for its lead performance. It’s remembered for Miss Marmelstein, the role that introduced Broadway to Barbra Streisand. In Classic Stage’s current revival, Marmelstein seems primed to be the only thing we remember from this production, too.
It’s not that the rest of the company isn’t doing good work – they are. Director Trip Cullman has assembled a veritable all-star cast of on-and-off-Broadway musical theatre actors. Adam Chanler-Berat and Sarah Steele are charming and, later, heartbreaking as a married couple who are too trusting and get swindled. Rebecca Naomi Jones brings her irrepressible presence to a somewhat thin love interest role, but fleshes it out with her own intelligent, magnetic choices. Greg Hildreth brings dimension to a role that could easily be a cardboard antagonist and Judy Kuhn is, of course, magnificent as a tired Jewish mother pushing blintzes.
Those descriptions give some indication of the quality of Jermone Weidman’s book, based on his novel and revised by his son, John Weidman. The younger Weidman’s collaboration on the Stephen Sondheim musical Assassins played Classic Stage during the Pandemic and is one of the best books of a musical ever created. The characters and plotting in Wholesale border on archetypical and the dialogue lacks spark. Even with some of the greatest actors available, the material feels unremarkable.
That’s also true of Harold Rome’s score. The songs rarely build to a satisfying peak. Instead, they meander and taper off, usually ending before or right after they’ve gained any steam. Their placement also feels ripped from a Musicals 101 course, clearly studied from book musical patterns in the preceding decades. There’s nothing wrong with that, per se, but there’s no surprise. And with no invention in the plotting or song placement and no real moment where a song can soar, we’re left with nothing to hang our ear on.
Cullman’s production is stylish, but bare bones, so there’s really nothing to look at either. The shadow of Classic Stage’s last artistic director, John Doyle, is still cast on its stage. Though they have removed the raised wooden deck Doyle was fond of, the two rows of chairs and movable tables that comprise Mark Wendland’s set feel very much of Doyle’s minimalist aesthetic. Ann Hould-Ward’s costume design is thoughtful, but a bit drab, especially for a show about a dress company. Adam Honoré’s lighting takes some bold swings by color-washing the stage at times and that, at least, gives a little visual flair. Sun Hee Kil’s sound design favors the vocalists over the orchestra with a balance that is, at times, perplexing.
Santino Fontana is slick as the conman Harry Bogen, but the part is irredeemable. Bogen has no good qualities and isn’t even fun in his evildoing. He talks to the audience as if to get us on his side, like Iago in Othello, but we’re unconvinced. I’m all for an unlikable character, but Bogen is beyond that. He’s uninteresting.
Having never had the opportunity to see this show before, I always found it curious that Streisand walked away with the show in what I’d heard was a tiny role. I had read comparisons to Jessie Mueller’s performance in the 2011 revival of On a Clear Day You Can See Forever, but even that seemed like a bigger part than Miss Marmelstein. How could this role make such a splash? I think there’s a two-part answer. The first is that the rest of the show is so lifeless, when Marmelstein sings her song, it is such a departure from everything around it. The song is tuneful, it builds, it’s funny. The second is that, I mean, they had Barbra Streisand.
And here, we have Julia Lester. A breakout from last season’s Into the Woods revival, Lester displayed impeccable comedic timing and an ability to use her singing to convey comedy without losing melody or rhythm. She employs those skills again here and stops the show cold with “Miss Marmelstein”. She does it again later, in a more serious way, with the stirring “What are They Doing to Us Now?”, a particularly timely song about the unending oppression of the Jewish people.
Lester steps into Marmelstein’s iconic shoes and they fit her perfectly. Two years after Wholesale, Streisand became Fanny Brice. We can only hope that in two years (or less!) someone has written Lester her own star vehicle. Not that it’s not already happening for her at Classic Stage.