The Pershing Square Signature Center
The Irene Diamond Stage
480 West 42nd St. between Tenth & Eleventh Aves.
Tuesday - Sunday through August 31, $31.50 - $99.50
Art imitates life in the engaging, bittersweet off-Broadway musical Piece of My Heart: The Bert Berns Story. In a prolific period between 1961 and 1967, Bert Berns wrote and/or produced more than two dozen big-time pop hits, recorded by such singers and bands as the Beatles, David Bowie, the Rolling Stones, the Drifters, Janis Joplin, the Animals, Solomon Burke, the Isley Brothers, and Van Morrison, while also founding the seminal Atlantic offshoot BANG Records. Born and raised in the Bronx, Berns died in 1967 at the age of thirty-eight, and today his legacy is all but nonexistent, although his surviving family is in the midst of rebuilding his reputation with this show; the first major authorized biography, Joel Selvin’s Here Comes the Night: The Dark Soul of Bert Berns and the Dirty Business of Rhythm and Blues; and the upcoming documentary BANG — The Bert Berns Story. In Piece of My Heart, Leslie Kritzer stars as Jessie, Berns’s fictional daughter who receives an unexpected call that her mother, Ilene (Linda Hart), is going to close up Bert’s Broadway office and sell the rights to all of his songs. Disturbed by her mother’s intentions, Jessie, who didn’t know anything about the office, heads to New York City, where she finds her father’s former manager and right-hand man, Wazzel (Joseph Siravo), waiting for her. Wazzel tells Jessie how Bert (Zak Resnick), vocalist Hoagy Lands (Derrick Baskin), and the young Wazzel (Bryan Fenkart) got started, with the events unfolding right in front of them. Jessie sees her father going to Cuba and working with a revolutionary named Carlos (Sydney James Harcourt), meeting high-powered producer Jerry Wexler (Mark Zeisler), challenging the legendary Phil Spector, and falling in love with Ilene (Teal Wicks), a blonde dancer who would become Bert’s wife and Jessie’s mother. But when the current-day Ilene shows up at her husband’s office, she kicks out Wazzel and has a somewhat different tale to tell Jessie while trying to convince her that signing over the songs is the right thing to do, leaving Jessie trapped in the middle as she learns more and more about her father.
For much of its two hours and twenty minutes (with intermission), Piece of My Heart walks that fine line between bio show and vanity project. As pointed out numerous times in Daniel Goldfarb’s fairly standard book, Berns was determined to become famous; also, knowing that he was living on borrowed time because of a heart problem, he often said, “My children will know me by my music.” The show is produced by Berns’s son, Brett, and daughter, Cassandra, with the express purpose of finally bringing fame to their father, and the narrative sometimes gets bogged down with whitewashed scenes that turn Berns into a kind of heroic, misunderstood figure. It’s not helped by the casting of Resnick (Mamma Mia!, Disaster!) in the title role; while his singing packs a powerful punch, his acting is akin to a David Wright press conference, all white-bread clichés with no nuance. However, the rest of the cast of seasoned pros is outstanding, including Hart (Hairspray, Anything Goes) and Wicks (Wicked, Jekyll & Hyde) as the feisty Ilene, Siravo (Conversations with My Father, The Light in the Piazza) and Fenkart (Memphis) as the tough-talking Wazzel, De’Adre Aziza (Passing Strange) as Candace, Berns’s sexy first love, and Kritzer (A Catered Affair, Legally Blonde) as a kind of onstage stand-in for the audience. Oh, and let’s not forget about the music, which is performed admirably by a live band led by Lon Hoyt; the songs range from the somewhat obscure to the familiar to the super famous, but it’s best if you go without knowing what they are so you can be surprised by each new well-choreographed musical number (by director Denis Jones) on Alexander Dodge’s simple but effective sets, energized by Ben Stanton’s colorful lighting. The songs are listed in the Playbill and detailed on a large board outside the Signature’s Irene Diamond theater, but it’s better to read about them after the show, which got an instant and rousing standing ovation the night we went.