There are two reasons to see Piece Of My Heart. The first is Derrick Baskin who has so much charisma he could bottle and sell it. The second is Linda Hart, a woman of a certain age who has a set of pipes and vocal chords that tear down the house. Other than that this is a tepid production.
Like Beautiful: The Carol King Musical, this production intends to make a story out of an iconic song writer, Bert Berns (Zak Resnick). Unlike Beautiful, the pickins here are slim. “Cry Baby” and “Piece of My Heart” – both made legendary by Janis Joplin – “Tell Him,” “I Want Candy,” “Hang on Sloopy,” “Here Comes The Night,” “Twist and Shout,” and “A Little Bit of Soap” (not included here) are the recognizable tunes. The other 20 plus numbers all have that classic early rock ‘n’ roll sound, but they ring no bells literally or metaphorically.
This means that about ¾ of the show does not connect, in spite of the fine musicianship going on (although the sound levels are off to the degree that in the louder numbers the voices are drowned out by the orchestra). As to the story, the contrived plot goes like this: Berns’ daughter, Jessie (Leslie Kritzer) who was 10 when her father died, is a singer down on her luck. It is 1997 and she gets a call from a stranger telling her to come to the Brill Building in New York to her father’s old office before it is too late. The mysterious voice belongs to Wazzel (Joseph Siravo), Berns’ best friend and “manager” for many years. When Jessie arrives he tells her that her mother Ilene (Linda Hart) s about to sell the rights to all her father’s music. Jessie refuses to believe him. Her mother always vowed never to sell, so in order to prove it Wazzel tells Jessie his version of her father’s story, which differs dramatically from her mother’s version. For example, Berns never wet to Juliard – like he did in Ilene’s version. Turns out there is a lot that Jessie doesn’t know.
The production then flashes between Wazzel’s tale and 1997. We learn that Berns had a heart condition, which eventually took him down at the age of 38, and in spite of that smoked and drank just like everyone else did. The story is dotted with his premonitions of death and the fear of not having enough time to write everything in his head. He spent a long time in Cuba, experiencing writer’s block and self-doubt, until the revolution got serious enough for him to scram. We see the obligatory left arm twinges that seny him to his prescription bottle, as well as the betrayal of wife and friends and his steep learning curve as Berns struggled with the business of the business. He did live to see the Beatles record his music, but he died before Joplin got her hands on his material.
Unfortunately none of this is enough to make us care about anyone much. There is some terrific singing, although many of the singers sacrifice the lyrics for vocal gymnastics the way everyone does these days, as if holding a true note was a sign of a dull mind. And when the audience hears a familiar melody we all perk up, which is why the curtain call is such a gas. Derrick Baskin closes out the evening with a “Twist and Shout” that brings us all to our feet.
Everyone gives it their best – of that there is no question. Try as they might, however, in the words of Gerturde Stein, “There is no there there.”
Piece of My Heart: The Bert Berns Story – Book by Daniel Goldfarb, Music and Lyrics by Bert Berns, Directed and Choreographed by Denis Jones
Scenic Desigb by Alexander Dodge, Costume Design by David C. Woolad, Lighting Design by Ben Stanton, Sound Design by Carl Casella
WITH Zak Resnick (Bert), Leslie Kritzer (Jessie), Joeph Siravo (Wazzel), Derrick Baskin (Hoagy), Bran Fenkart (Young Wazzel), De’Adre Aziza (Candace), Linda Hart (Ilene), Teal Wicks (Young Ilene).
“Piece of My Heart: The Bert Berns Story” is a Merged Work Production and runs through Aug. 31 at the Pershing Square Signature Center, 480 West 42nd Street, Clinton; 212-279-4200, pieceofmyheartmusical.com.