The producers of Piece of My Heart, a new musical devoted to the life and work of 1960s American songwriter Bert Berns, were right to open it off-Broadway, at the Signature Center. Such placement has the effect of scaling down our expectations. The evening’s scattered pleasures seem more enjoyable, and the occasional weaknesses less glaring than they might have on Broadway.
Yet Broadway has certainly paved the way for what is subtitled The Bert Berns Story. The current boomer hits Motown and Beautiful: The Carole King Musical focus on subjects beloved by older American audiences, while Berns is a relative unknown who, before his premature death in 1967, at age 38, created a more modest heap of classics, including “Twist and Shout”, “Hang on Sloopy” and the show’s title tune, best known in Janis Joplin’s throaty rendition.
Piece of My Heart, capably directed and choreographed by Denis Jones, with Zak Resnick charismatic as Berns, resembles in spirit the 1995 Broadway hit Smokey Joe’s Café, which was devoted to Lieber and Stoller, who, it happens, preceded Berns as staff producers at Atlantic Records. Smokey took the revue route, which placed the drama within individual songs, rather than in an overall narrative.
Daniel Goldfarb, writer of the book for Piece of My Heart, has come up with a useful framing device. Berns’ daughter, Jessie, aptly portrayed by Leslie Kritzer, learns three decades after her father’s death that his midtown-Manhattan office, which has served for years as a mausoleum to his achievement, is about to be packed up. Her mother, Ilene, wants to sell his catalogue. Jessie must work out her feelings about not only the sale, but about her father’s life, which is coming into focus thanks to Berns’ goombah friend, Wazzel.
The first act dawdles its way through Berns’ development as an artist. We are not spared the heavy-breathing aspects, getting glimpses of an African-American girlfriend, who encourages his soulfulness. There is a too-long detour to Batista’s Cuba, where Berns’ firebrand comrade, Carlos, informs him that his self-pity is one of the “luxuries of capitalism”. The second act deepens the theme of Berns as a fighter against adversity: he was haunted by his life-long knowledge of a weak heart. But if this musical persuaded me that Berns has been unjustly neglected as a songwriter, it failed to convince me that many of the songs themselves are first-rate.