You may not know Bert Berns, but you know his music: ''Twist and Shout,'' ''Cry Baby,'' ''I Want Candy,'' ''Tell Him,'' and ''Piece of My Heart.'' And even after two hours and 20 minutes of Piece of My Heart: The Bert Berns Story, the jukebox musical at Off Broadway's Pershing Square Signature Center, you still may not know Bert Berns.
A Berns biomusical is a fine idea. After all, many of his contemporaries have gotten the same treatment. (See: the current Broadway hit Beautiful: The Carole King Musical; last year's Off Broadway sensation What's It All About? Bacharach Reimagined; or 1995's Smokey Joe's Café, a revue of the songs of Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller, which ran for five years on Broadway.) And there's plenty of drama in the life story of a man who wrote and produced 51 hits in seven years and died tragically young at age 38 after a teenage bout of rheumatic fever wreaked havoc on his heart.
Yet in Piece of My Heart, Berns (played by Zak Resnick) is almost relegated to supporting-character status. Playwright Daniel Goldfarb uses Berns' daughter Jessie (Leslie Kritzer)a sort of composite of the songwriter's childrenand a convoluted scenario involving his witchy widow Berns (Linda Hart) attempting to sell his songs to a gangsterish guy named Wazzel (Joseph Siravo).
Through that awkward framing device, we don't learn much. Bert apparently acquired his love of Latin rhythms during a rum-soaked stay in Cuba, a sequence that goes on way too long, no matter how many sultry samba rolls director-choreographer Denis Jones packs in. He also once picked up a girl using (or despite?) a song called ''Show Me Your Monkey.'' Oh, and that he has a heart problem; all the chest-clutching is about as subtle as a sledgehammer.
His family, his neighborhood, why he wanted to write songs, what he loved about rhythm and blues, what drove him...none of this is anywhere on stage. And as vocally appealing as Resnick is, he's got all the toughness of a teddy bear. Berns was a man, as he says, ''living on borrowed time.'' By all accountsat least according to Joel Selvin's biography Here Comes the Night: The Dark Soul of Bert Berns and the Dirty Business of Rhythm & Bluesthat gave him some edge.
But everything is smoothed over in Piece of My Hearteven the title song, which becomes a reunion anthem between characters and their younger selves (weird) and father and daughter (creepy)all sung with a smile and feel-good lilt. Because what says happy ending better than ''Break another little bit of my heart now, honey''? C–
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