There is an epidemic sweeping midtown and taking over the Great White Way one theater at a time: the jukebox musical. Forgoing original material in favor of vaguely relevant pop songs, these largely fluffy and overblown spectacles have practically monopolized commercial theater since the dawn of the 21st Century. Finally, Piece of My Heart: The Bert Berns Story, currently playing at the Pershing Square Signature Center, has arrived to offer some hope for the fledgling genre. The biographical musical featuring the 1960’s songwriter’s music and lyrics proves that jukebox musicals have come a long way since Mamma Mia reared its shimmering head in 2001.
Piece of My Heart tells the forgotten – or perhaps intentionally hidden – tale of Bert Berns: the most famous songwriter you never knew. Employing his thirty year-old daughter Jessie – born just ten days before his death – as a framing device, the show reveals how Bert’s life story and legacy have been kept under wraps by bitter producers, mafioso friends, and even his widow Ilene. The more Jessie learns about her father’s meteoric rise and fall and tempestuous relationships, the less she trusts anyone with his incredibly valuable song catalog.
In context, the famous title song lyrics “take another little piece of my heart now, baby” quite literally refer to Berns’ personal struggles: as a child, a case of rheumatic fever left him with life-threatening heart complications. Having spent his adolescence in fear of imminent death, the chronically ill Bert escaped to Cuba to better understand his self-worth. Upon his return to the United States in 1961, Berns quickly became one of the most sought after songwriters, producing over 50 hits before his death seven years later. Following a man living on “borrowed time,” Piece of My Heart poses the age-old question “If not now, when?”
The secret to the show’s success lies in its variety, both musical and theatrical. With hits ranging from “I Want Candy” to “Are You Lonely for Me, Baby,” Berns’ vast and diverse repertoire provides prime material for adaptation. Bookwriter Daniel Goldfarb uses his incomparable imagination and keen eye for structure to weave together song and story seamlessly. Likewise, the show’s long list of orchestrators and arrangers (Garry Sherman, Lon Hoyt, Adam Ben-David, Bryan Crook) transform these radio hits into theater showstoppers without sacrificing their musical integrity: “Up in the Streets of Havana” sizzles with Latin flair while “Cry Baby” soars as an 11 o’clock ballad.
No less captivating is the first-rate cast gracing the Signature Center stage directed and choreographed by Denis Jones. Straight off a Broadway run in that previously mentioned jukebox musical, the magnetic Zak Resnick proves himself exceedingly capable of carrying a production. His Bert exudes raw emotion, boyish insecurity, and irresistible charm. Teal Wicks and Linda Hart shine by his side as the young and old versions of Bert’s scrappy, sexy wife Ilene, respectively. However, the true honor goes to Derrick Baskin as Hoagy whose rendition of “Twist and Shout” gives The Beatles a run for their money.
What the jukebox epidemic means for new scores remains to be seen, but at least Piece of My Heart offers solid consolation. This compelling, passionate story holds up against its original musical contemporaries. In fact, I enjoyed it so much that I almost didn’t mind when the curtain call devolved into the same forced standing ovation/dance party they throw at Mamma Mia. Almost.
Piece of My Heart: The Bert Berns Story (through August 31, 2014)
Irene Diamond Stage, The Pershing Square Signature Center, 480 West 42nd Street, in Manhattan
For tickets, call 212-279-4200 or visit http://www.pieceofmyheartmusical.com
Running time: two hours and 30 minutes with one intermission