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Piece of My Heart: The Bert Berns Story

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

Leslie Kritzer and Zak Resnick.
Photo by Jenny Anderson

Once upon a time, jukebox and songwriter-showcase musicals didn't pretend to be much more than they are. Perhaps the quintessential example of the often-tricky genre, Ain't Misbehavin', was little more than a strung-together collection of Fats Waller numbers that, thanks to genuine care and some intense performances in the original production, seemed like a lot more than it was. But too often today, these shows seem like a lot less, because they put love and love of detail behind pop-catalog hagiography: Nothing, my friend, must damage the brand.

Which is what makes the newest show of this style, Piece of My Heart: The Bert Berns Story, now playing at the Pershing Square Signature Center, so curious: There's no brand to either damage or capitalize on. Certainly Berns wrote some major hits—"Everybody Needs Somebody to Love," Hang on Sloopy," "I Want Candy," "Twist and Shout," the title tune—but as a star subject he falls short because, well, writing hits was much more his thing than performing them. His music may never have fallen into obscurity, but he never rose out of it—so what's the point in learning about his life?

Even after seeing Piece of My Heart, I honestly couldn't tell you. Librettist Daniel Goldfarb (The Retributionists, Modern Orthodox) apparently wants us to realize just how innovative and forward-thinking Berns was, injecting both Latin- and African-American influences into writing that cloaked itself in 1960s bubblegum but was really anything but. And that during the course of his unusually brief career (a mere seven years, ending with his death by—yes—heart failure in 1967), Berns made an impact on the recording world that cannot be forgotten.

Whether or not that's true, there's nothing in the show to suggest that the man's story is particularly unique or fascinating in its own right. Bert (played by Zak Resnick, a human perpetual-motion machine) is a typical young man of his era, struggling with women and changing attitudes toward race, and a typical feel-good-bio central figure of any era, negotiating the ups and downs of fame while coping with friends, lovers, and family who don't quite understand him or share his shooting-to-the-top velocity. But ultimately, despite a few differentiating details—he had constant health problems as a result of childhood rheumatic fever, he somehow ended up in Cuba right before the revolution there—he's not that much different from, say, the Carole King of Beautiful or the Frankie Valli of Jersey Boys, two shows that, it's worth remembering, are still playing on Broadway.

Zak Resnick and Derrick Baskin.
Photo by Jenny Anderson

And those two characters, I would say, face more interesting troubles in their personal and professional lives, and, at least as rendered by those shows' bookwriters, make a stronger contribution to the theatre. Goldfarb, unable to wring much pathos from Bert himself (even when trying to work in bits about organized crime that feel like they were lifted, and not easily, from Jersey Boys), anchors his book around a subplot of Bert's daughter, Jessie (Leslie Kritzer), also a challenge-prone songwriter, coming of age some 30 years later and discovering thanks to Bert's friend Wazzel (Joseph Siravo) her father's "secret" producing career just in time to save the remnants of his output from her money-hungry mother, Ilene (Linda Hart).

This concept is not necessarily a poor one, as Bert's dual financial and artistic legacies could provide some drama for the people still trying to understand what his work did and what it meant. But Goldfarb's broad strokes, which depict Jessie as just a bit too wide-eyed and Ilene as just a little duplicitous (her defining number is "I'll Be a Liar"), prevent either story from gaining much traction, and too often it seems as though these plots are sharing the stage for no good reason and to no good effect.

That even the most pounding numbers, orchestrated and arranged by Garry Sherman and thunderously overamplified (by sound designer Carl Casella), can't come across as invigorating in these surroundings, suggests something is genuinely wrong. Denis Jones's direction and choreography are at best efficient and at worst hollow, and the sets (Alexander Dodge), costumes (David C. Woolard), and lights (Ben Stanton) likewise have difficulties establishing distinct personalities of their own, sometimes looking like a Technicolor sitcom, other times resembling a sped-up Hullabaloo (with clips from American Bandstand thrown in for good measure).

Kritzer, per her usual, walks with away with the show, bringing an emotional reality and understated comic intensity to her part that magically compensate for Jessie having no impactful solos or scenes of her own. But Resnick is quite good, believably progressing from gawky boy to confident man, and has trouble conveying Bert's belief that he is, in fact, living on borrowed time (and not much of it). Siravo and Bryan Fenkart, playing Wazzel at two different stages of life, are a bit too steeped in mafioso clich├ęs, and Hart is not so successful at de-bimbo-fying the older Ilene (though, as the younger version, Teal Wicks has noticeably more depth). De'Adre Aziza, though, makes the most of essentially a cameo appearance as Bert's first interracial love affair, Candace; Derrick Baskin is one-note but fine as Bert's longtime pal and vocal muse, Hoagy Lands.

If you can't place that last name, by the way, don't feel bad. Perpetually burning stars are rare; those who shine brightly for a moment and then vanish, not so much. Berns, alas, falls into that category as well, and there's nothing Goldfarb, Jones, or even Resnick can do to extricate him from it. It's not bad, it's just the way it is—Berns's music always spoke louder than the man himself did, and there's little that Piece of My Heart, even given its nods to social, political, and entertainment history, can do to change that. Maybe it's heart is in the right place, maybe it isn't, but no one involved here gives you reason to care one way or another.

Piece of My Heart: The Bert Berns Story
Through August 31
Irene Diamond Stage at The Pershing Square Signature Center, 480 West 42nd Street between 9th and 10th Avenues
Running Time: 2 hours 20 minutes with one intermission
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: TicketCentral

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