Most jukebox shows rely on the name-recognition factor to lure in the crowds. Well, here's a musical that has sort of the opposite goal: to bring our attention to a name that many of us have never heard of.
Piece of My Heart - The Bert Berns Story, currently playing at the Diamond Theater at the Pershing Square Signature Center, has essentially been devised to educate the general public about the pop-music contributions of Bert Berns, writer and/or producer of such hit songs as "Twist and Shout," "Tell Him," "I Want Candy," "Hang on Sloopy," "Cry Baby," "Brown-Eyed Girl," and the title song.
A worthy goal. But here's the thing: after seeing Piece of My Heart, I don't really know any more about Berns than I did before.
As is often the case with songbook musicals, Piece of My Heart is at its best when it's singing. The production features a top-notch cast of New York professionals, including Leslie Kritzer, Linda Hart, Derrick Baskin, and Zak Resnick in the title role, all of whom bring intensity and kick-ass vocals to their performances. Also, director/choreographer Denis Jones provides slick and efficient staging, filling the stage with plenty to keep the eye occupied and interested.
The main problem with Piece of My Heart is Daniel Goldfarb's leaden and thin book. The interesting thing here is that the songs, unlike those of many other jukebox shows, actually feel like they fit the story, albeit with a few rather glaring exceptions. But the book is hampered by some rather hoary dialogue, underdeveloped plot threads, and a sort of rush to the finish line.
Perhaps the biggest liability here is Goldfarb's dialogue, which alternates between didacticism and cliché. Characters spout such ham-fisted chronological cues as "These past two years have been wonderful..." Another interchange has Berns pleading with a Cuban revolutionary, "Teach me the music of your people," to which the Cuban responds, "You have a sadness at one with my country's sadness." Yeesh. At other times, Goldfarb includes lines of implied portent without payoff. One of the characters says, of Berns, "To get to his music, he had to go to some dark places," which is fine, except that what follows isn't particularly dark.
The most risible dialogue of all comes during Berns's death scene. Berns died at 38 from a heart attack that stemmed from a bout of rheumatic fever when he was young. In Piece of My Heart, as Berns clutches his heart, he manages to write down on a piece of paper, "My children will know me through my music." I suppose it's possible that Berns actually did this as he died, but that doesn't make it any less treacly.
Goldfarb's book is full of events, but devoid of explanatory depth. Berns has an interracial romance that doesn't work out; a stint in Cuba complete with revolutionaries and whores; a fight over control of his record-label. Only the last of these really seems relevant to the task at hand. The show also features a framing device involving a posthumous battle between Berns's widow and a fictional daughter (although Berns did in fact have children of his own), who vie for control over Berns's work. Piece of My Heart seems to be in such a rush to cram all of the events of Berns's short life into the show that it doesn't take enough time to develop the events themselves.
The bar has never been very high for jukebox musicals, at least in terms of whether the public will attend. In that respect, Piece of My Heart is certainly more worthy than such theatrical dreck as Mamma Mia, Baby It's You or A Night With Janis Joplin. If it doesn't quite rank with the gold standards of the genre (Jersey Boy, Beautiful: The Carol King Musical), there's at least enough here in terms of the music, the staging, and the cast to warrant a trip to 42nd Street.