1650 Broadway is on its way to overtaking 42nd Street as the most overexposed bit of Manhattan real estate. This unassuming office building (also the location of Beautiful — The Carole King Musical) was the address of some of the most important pop songwriters of the 1950s and '60s, many of whom are now seeing their songs reimagined for the stage. The latest such dramatized song catalog hoping to capitalize on the nostalgia and disposable income of baby boomers is Piece of My Heart: The Bert Berns Story, now making its off-Broadway premiere at the Pershing Square Signature Center. As far as these things go, it's not bad. That doesn't mean, however, that you don't get the sinking feeling that a lot of the story you're seeing onstage is baloney (to put it lightly).
Berns, the songwriter behind such hits as "Twist and Shout" and "I Want Candy," died at the shockingly young age of 38. Like many of the songwriters of his day, his songs are mostly remembered in association with their original recording artists, while Berns languishes in obscurity.
His lost story is revealed through the vantage point of his daughter, Jessie (Leslie Kritzer), herself a struggling singer-songwriter in Seattle. She receives a mysterious tip that her mother is about to sell the rights to all of her father's songs, so she rushes to New York to try to learn more before it's too late. There she meets Dad's old mobster friend, Wazzel (Joseph Siravo). Over cannoli he tells her the "real" story of her father, who is a far cry from the goody-two-shoes Juilliard graduate that Jessie's mother, Ilene (Linda Hart), has described.
Much of the first act centers on Berns (Zak Resnick) sowing his wild oats. He shacks up in Greenwich Village with the smoldering Candace (the fabulous de'Adre Aziza), until she dumps him. Heartbroken and pushing 30, he runs away to Cuba (circa 1958), where he meets Carlos (Sydney James Harcourt), an anti-Batista revolutionary and brothel owner. Carlos teaches Berns to smuggle guns and live every moment as if it were his last. Seeing his own clock ticking due to a heart condition he's struggled with since battling rheumatic fever at age 15, Berns heeds the advice of the communist pimp and travels back to America where he makes a boatload of money writing pop songs for teenyboppers.
Jukebox musicals usually stick to one of two forms: There's the composer bio that introduces the songs in the context of performance or recording session (Jersey Boys) and the kind that seeks to fit the greatest hits into a contrived plot (Mamma Mia!). Piece of My Heart borrows a little bit from both, introducing "Twist and Shout" through an abortive recording session with Phil Spector, but using "Tell Him" to underscore Berns' shotgun wedding to Young Ilene (Teal Wicks).
Director Denis Jones has crafted it all into a sleek package, with the kind of musically satisfying staging in which the bump of the last song immediately leads into the following scene. This helps the show pack in more music than you would think possible, and it does so in an authentic-sounding way.
Unlike Beautiful, Piece of My Heart does not commit the sin of American Idol-ing the songs to death. There are no gratuitous key changes and glory notes in "Hang on Sloopy." With driving beats and solid melodies, Garry Sherman's arrangements offer tonally faithful renditions of these classic pop songs. (Sherman actually worked with Berns when he was alive.)
It helps that this cast can really sing. Resnick, in particular, has a lot of soul for a white boy. Kritzer packs a punch in each of her songs. Her trio with Hart and Wicks on "Cry Baby" is a high point, even if it is a bit awkwardly sung to a bassinet. Unfortunately, the acting never seems to get beyond the superficial, and the true character of Bert Berns remains something of a mystery. The performers cannot be faulted for this, considering they're working with a book (by Daniel Goldfarb) that seems to conceal more than it reveals.
Much of the buzz about Piece of My Heart revolves around the notion of setting the record straight on Berns, whose true story has been suppressed for years by his enemies. But if the goal really is outing the truth, the creators have made an odd choice in using a fictional daughter, our heroine, Jessie, as its conduit (Berns' real children, Brett and Cassandra Berns, are producers on this project). It also raises the question: If they made up Jessie, what else about this story is made-up?
Atlantic Records executive Jerry Wexler is portrayed as the villain, at one point ominously remarking, "I'll do everything in my power to make sure the name Bert Berns is nothing more than a footnote." So that's why we've never heard of him! I look forward to a spirited response from the Jerry Wexler jukebox musical that will undoubtedly come down the pike in the next decade.
If you're looking for an accurate portrayal of history, don't expect it to come from musical theater. A fun evening of song and dance, on the other hand, it can do. Piece of My Heart does the latter in spades.