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'Piece of My Heart' - You Know the Songs, but Who Wrote Them?

Teal Wicks and Zak Resnick in Piece of My Heart
(©Jenny Anderson)

Who was Bert Berns? Chances are that pop music aficionados will know the answer, but the general public will not. Both groups, though, will know his songs. They range from "Twist and Shout" to "I Want Candy" to "Cry Baby." Another of Berns' tunes, "Piece of My Heart," has given the new bio-tuner about the songwriter-record producer it title, and this show, which opened last night at the Pershing Square Signature Center, works valiantly and to mixed effect to make sure that a broader public becomes aware of Berns' work and story.

The fact that Berns' life and career are largely unknown helps give some of the show its drive, and it's also the jumping off place for book writer Daniel Goldfarb's script. In Piece of My Heart, Berns' life is revealed in flashbacks as the daughter who never knew him (Berns passed away when she was ten days old) sorts through his belongings at the Manhattan office he once occupied. The mystery conceit adds a modest level of suspense to what might otherwise have been a straightforward jukebox bio.

Goldfarb has less success in integrating another dramatic arc into the show as Berns' daughter races against time to thwart her mother's plan to sell her husband's catalog. The fact that the older woman is played by Linda Hart, who channels Loretta Lynn and Elaine Stritch as she delivers "I'll Be a Liar," making it show's eleven o'clock number, helps enormously. Unfortunately, the struggle between mother and daughter ultimately overcrowds the musical, forcing Goldfarb to rush through large portions of the Berns biography.

Beyond this, the show suffers from the problem that all jukebox musicals face: how to put preexisting songs into the mouths of characters as if they were book songs. Using "Are You Lonely for Me Baby" as a duet between Bert and a woman he has just met in a downtown club in New York makes little sense as they sing "I was on the last train to Jacksonville." In other instances, though, Goldfarb cleverly integrates both familiar numbers and a few forgotten gems into the fabric of the show as ensemble numbers, and he avoids the overused conceit of recreating famous renditions of the big songs.

Directed and choreographed by Denis Jones, the show does feature a winning lead performance from Zak Resnick as Berns. Resnick terrifically belts out song after song, and he brings a goofiness that's almost dreamy to his portrayal of the man. His work certainly helps to distract from questions that the show raises, such as why Berns, who knew he had a bad heart from childhood, had such a self-destructive streak. Throughout the play he's seen smoking and drinking, as the show pushes toward the man's untimely death in 1967 at the age of 38.

Leslie Kritzer brings the kind of quirkiness and vocal prowess that audiences have come to expect from her to her performance as Berns' adult daughter, and Teal Wicks delivers a shrewdly sassy turn as the younger incarnation of Berns' wife, Ilene. There's also fine work from De'Adre Aziza, who offers up some smoky, sultry vocals as Candace, one of Berns' first lovers.

Throughout Ben Stanton shapes space with an eye-poppingly colorful lighting design, and the orchestrations and arrangements from Garry Sherman, Adam Ben-David, and Lon Hoyt are simply terrific, alternating between a bubblegum bounce, pulsating rock, and even the occasional Latin riff. More so than anything else in Piece of My Heart, it's these men's work that make the case for investigating Berns' work. There's a musical fusion at play in his songs that genuinely fascinates.

---- Andy Propst

Piece of My Heart plays at the Pershing Square Signature Center (480 West 42nd Street). For more information and tickets, visit: pieceofmyheartmusical.com.