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Jewish Theatre of the South gives Wholesale the hard sell

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A line as thin as a thread separates I Can Get it For You Wholesale and How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying. Both of the musicals from the 1960s explore what it takes to triumph in the business world, with How to Succeed (cleverly abbreviated as H2$ for its recent hit revival) taking a light and largely positive approach.

In Wholesale, however, corporate ambition is more of a tragic flaw than a cardinal virtue, and Harry Bogen's rise in the garment industry becomes more like something by Machiavelli than a Horatio Alger up-by-the-bootstraps story. Given uncomfortable material, the Jewish Theatre of the South's production of I Can Get it For You Wholesale proves often unsatisfying, although some of the songs and roles seem tailor-made for its cast.

Playing Harry Bogen, Gregory Thomas Isaac makes a superb musical leading man, the kind who can seem dynamic and masculine just by standing still with his feet planted at the right angle. Isaac's stage charisma makes his role a more intriguing protagonist, since Harry, intent on becoming a "Seventh Avenue Robber Baron," is morally dubious at best. When characters confront him with his misdeeds, Harry frequently sings reprises of early songs to distract them.

The first act shows how Harry sets himself up in the "rag trade," beginning by breaking a shipping clerk's strike and ingratiating himself with a fat cat named Pulvermacher (a slow-burning David Kleist). Eventually Harry steals Pulvermacher's best "cutter" (Thomas Liychik) and salesman (Jared Simon) and opens his own dress-making operation, called Apex Modes.

The song "Momma, Momma!" helps mark the passage of time, as Harry repeatedly visits his dear old mother (Teresa DeBerry) in her kitchen, showering her with increasingly lavish gifts. Jerome Weidman's book and Harold Rome's songs tend to set up a dichotomy between family values (the kind exemplified by homemade blintzes) and the temptations of money and pleasure found at dives like Club Rio Rhumba. Harry is torn between a gold-digging actress (throaty-voiced Hope Mirlis) and a nice Jewish girl from the old neighborhood (throaty-voiced Megan Cramer).

Director Lisa Mount and choreographer Jeff McKerley convey the hustle and bustle of the business, with "Ballad of the Garment Trade" following a whirlwind of delivery boys, cranky models, drunken buyers and nervous investors. But in more conventional dance numbers the steps tend to be pedestrian, like footwork clichés found in any musicals. The dancers may be inhibited by the presence of the orchestra pit nearly in the middle of the stage, like an open trapdoor.

Though the JTS production has many talented and likable players, it rarely achieves the kind of exhilaration that the blending of song, dance and story calls for. Perhaps the most entertaining number is "The Family Way," with its overt evocations of Jewish culture and instrumental styles. But "A Gift Today," the bar mitzvah-themed song that opens the second act, does little to advance the story.

Jill Hames plays harried secretary Miss Marmelstein (the Broadway debut role of Barbra Streisand) and in her eponymous number she croons while gliding on a chair with wheels. As entertaining as Hames' comic relief can be, I prefer the forceful, angry notes she hits for the bitter battle cry, "What Are They Doing To Us Now?"

Liychik proves a likable nebbish, while Kleist and Simon make effective foils to Harry's vaulting ambition -- Simon shows a particular flair with pained, demonstrative facial expressions. The lead actresses fulfill the required traits of the characters: DeBerry nurtures, Mirlis vamps and Cramer embodies a wounded wholesomeness.

The lyrics will occasionally reveal a graceful turn of phrase, but few of the melodies are memorable and the contrived, upbeat ending hinges on what you could call a "Deus ex Pulvermacher." I Can Get It For You Wholesale gets hung up on its iffy show tunes and despicable hero, even though the Jewish Theatre of the South's production gives it the hard sell.

I Can Get it For You Wholesale plays through May 20 at Jewish Theatre of the South, Marcus Jewish Community Center of Atlanta, 5342 Tilly Mill Road, Dunwoody, with performances at 8 p.m. Thurs. and Sat. and 3 and 7 p.m. Sun. $18-22. 770-368-7469.

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