NY Theater Review by Sandi Durell
Did you every hear of Bert Berns? Probably not. But you did hear of, and probably sang and danced to, ‘Twist and Shout,’ ‘Hang on Sloopy,’ Cry Baby’ and especially the title song ‘Piece of My Heart’ that Janis Joplin gave status and which was renewed again by Mary Bridget Davies on Broadway in ‘A Night With Janis Joplin.’
Bert Berns, Jewish and from the Bronx, had the unfortunate history of developing a heart murmur as a young man, that led to his untimely death at age 38 of a heart attack in 1967. He spent many tortured moments in his quest to become a known entity as a songwriter, desperate to write a hit. And, now, his name is surely getting bantered about not only in this new jukebox musical at the Irene Diamond Stage at The Pershing Square Signature Center, but there’s also a new biography by Joel Selvin “Here Comes the Night,” and . . . a documentary in the works.
Zak Resnick plays Bert, and was wisely chosen, with his strong pop-rock vocals and good looks. On first glance, he almost seems too all-American until he shows himself as the intense, soulful, smoking, drinking songwriter with an unquenchable thirst for fame and women. His first serious encounter, at least in this somewhat loosely cliched script by Daniel Goldfarb, is with a black singer Candace Carmichael (a wonderful De’Adre Aziza) and a reason for hearing the song “I Want Candy.” A hot bedroom scene or two ensues.
The format of the show is similar to “Mamma Mia” – write a script around the songs as a storyline. However, we will go under the assumption that most of what we’re being told, in this off-Broadway production, is based upon truth, albeit the songs are presented in a sometimes convoluted manner to have a reason to be sung.
Berns’ three children never met their father. They were all under age 2 when he died. But it is Cassandra and Brett Berns, two of Bert’s children, who are at the forefront of making certain their father’s 50+ songs will not go unnoticed as producers to this musical.
The basic theme relies on flashbacks as we meet the now grown youngest daughter, who in this case is called Jessie (?) and played by the always remarkable Leslie Kritzer, a struggling singer-songwriter at odds with her mother – the young version of Ilene played by Teal Wicks (a disco dancer at a nightclub), whom Bert finds immediately attractive, quickly beds and marries. When a phone call comes in from an unknown man telling Jessie to meet him at 1650 Broadway, she can’t help but make her way to NY where she learns from her Dad’s old manager/friend Wazzel (the older version played by a perfectly cast Joseph Siravo, as a mobster type) that her selfish mother, Ilene, now played by the big-voiced Linda Hart, had lied to Jessie all her life and is now set to sell the rights to Bert’s songs for a good deal of loot. And the winner is?
What ensues throughout the 2 hours 20 minutes, are insights into the hard living life that takes Bert to Castro’s Cuba with the then younger Wazzel (played by Bryan Fenkart) along with his black singer pal Hoagy (another great voice – Derrick Baskin), where he meets Carlos (Sydney James Harcourt) who operates a bordello-hotel and who is also a revolutionary. This apparently gives pause to why Berns wrote many Latin rhythm tunes. The bordello soaked scene of questionable happenings, also gives director-choreographer Denis Jones just one of many platforms on which his work and dancers brightly shine. Thrown into the potpourri is Jerry Wexler (Mark Zeisler) from Atlantic Records in a not too positive light, and even Mike Stoller gets into the act.
It’s a long time of story-telling in which we get to hear the famous and not-so-famous Bert Berns’ songs but happily the music is now out there. Note: many of the songs had co-writers including J. Ragovoy, P. Medley, C. Spencer, M. Leander and others.
This is a terrific cast of singers and dancers and an 8 piece band!
Welcome to the world of Juke Box Musicals that currently include Broadway’s “Beautiful: The Carole King Musical,” “Jersey Boys,” Motown the Musical”!
*Photos: Jenny Anderson
“Piece of My Heart: The Bert Berns Story” runs through Aug. 31 at the Pershing Square Signature Center, 480 West 42nd Street, NYC 212-279-4200,