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First Nighter: 'Piece of My Heart: The Bert Berns Story' Works Piecemeal

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Among the ground-shifting 1960s music and music-biz developments was the emergence of the singer-songwriter. One of the related negative ramifications was the movement's eclipsing the songwriter who didn't sing but only wrote.

Would we know much about Carole King (cf. Beautiful at the Stephen Sondheim) if she hadn't evolved from songwriter with then husband Gerry Goffin to Tapestry? Would we know much about Bob Gaudio (cf. Jersey Boys at the August Wilson) if he weren't one of the Four Seasons? Would either King or Gaudio have shown up in musicals at all had they not performed their own songs?

That's why Daniel Goldfarb is owed thanks for his Piece of My Heart: The Bert Berns Story at The Pershing Square Signature Center. The librettist focuses the spotlight on Berns in a jukebox musical calling attention to a rock 'n' roll/r&b composer-lyricist-non-performer whose catalog includes the project's title song as well as "Twist and Shout," "Hang On Sloopy," "Tell Him," "Crybaby" and--to underline the enterprise's jukebox aspect--"If I Didn't Have a Dime (to Play the Jukebox)."

Directed and choreographed with verve by Denis Jones, designed by Alexander Dodge and costumed by David C. Woolard with impressive sound design by Carl Casella and Lon Hoyt's muscular conducting, Piece of My Heart is an undeniably rousing work in telling Berns's story as a determined tunesmith too aware that his rheumatic heart has likely condemned him to a short life.

The reprises of Berns's songs, as sung by a steel-throated cast, certainly vitalize the two-acter, but the deployment of those rock standards and near-standards raises only one of the questions Goldfarb's book asks as it toots along. That's because Piece of My Heart is one of those jukebox entries that makes a point of using the songs as expressions of where the figures are in their complicated relationships.

Here, these include Berns (Zak Resnick, who's excellent), his daughter Jessie (Leslie Kritzer, always at the top of her estimable form), wife Ilene (Linda Hart as the older Ilene and forceful at it, Teal Wicks as the younger Ilene), small-time wiseguy manager Wazzel (Joseph Siravo as the older Wazzel, Brian Fenkart as the younger Wazzel), and Atlantic Records mogul Jerry Wexler (Mark Zeisler).

In other words, songs are shoehorned into situations that more than likely had nothing to do with the actual conditions under which they were created. Surely, they emanated from feelings about the promise and pangs of love that Berns experienced. But whoa! Some of the songs are delivered by belting characters in scenes at which Berns isn't even present.

Perhaps an argument could be made that the songs are so strong they represent emotions at moments of great joy or stress, delight or disappointment. But it's not a very persuasive argument. The more convincing contention is that Berns was a songwriter who wanted to produce as many commercial songs as he could and knew that powerful love songs were the most obvious way to go.

The Piece of My Heart set-up is that widow Berns is about to sell her late husband's copyrights when longtime Berns buddy Wazzel contacts performing-hopeful daughter Jessie, who's estranged from her mother but devoted to her father's legacy. (He died shortly before she was born.) She returns to the Berns office at 1650 Broadway, the Manhattan building where, incidentally, much of Beautiful takes place--on a different floor.

That's the framework for the flashback to Berns's progress from wannabe to affair with a woman called Candace (de' Andre Aziza) to early sessions with Wexler to the founding of indie label Bang Records (the moniker an anagram formed from Atlantic's Berns, Ahmet Ertegun, Nesuhi Ertegun and G for Jerry Wexler's Gerald) to the split from Wexler to Bern's marital difficulties with ex-dancer Ilene to his last years.

Dramatizing various episodes in what is no more nor less than a typically sketchy stage bio, Goldfarb may be hewing to the facts as he knows them. If so, he doesn't have them right. His version, for instance, of Berns's first click, "Twist and Shout," is substantially different from the actual history. Yes, Phil Spector was involved in a deficient early track, but how the Isley Brothers came by the Top 40 cut and where Jerry Wexler comes into it is more gnarly and also too space-consuming to go into here.

Speaking of Wexler, one of the most prominent music men of the 20th century's second half, the depiction of him in Piece of My Heart is way off base. Shown as a typically hard-nosed music-business suit, he was anything but. Bearded--whereas he isn't as Zeisler plays him--Wexler was a master in the booth. More than that, though he undoubtedly had a temper, he also had one of the biggest smiles on late-century's uptown Tin Pan Alley.

It may be that when Berns, sometimes calling himself Bert Russell (not mentioned here), wrested Bang from Atlantic, Wexler threatened he'd see to it Berns's name would be erased in the industry and elsewhere. That's certainly one of the reasons Goldfarb offers for the man's enduring quasi-anonymity.

But whatever vengeful actions Wexler took, they were unnecessary as the above-mentioned singer-songwriters onslaught was already in motion. Indeed, it didn't really take that to put songwriters in the shadows. For the most part they always had been unrecognized, if they weren't Cole Porter or Johnny Mercer or a handful of others with national and international reputations.

This brings up an amusing Piece of My Heart irony. The thrust of the show is to repair the damage to a songwriter's unfairly unsung (in one sense of the word) reputation. (As long as anyone has taste, Janis Joplln singing "Piece of My Heart" will be heard.)

But, song lovers, Bert Berns only wrote both lyrics and music to some of his BMI ditties. (The irrepressible "Tell Him" is one.) When you look at his biggest revenue-producing items, you see he co-authored them with, among others, Phil Medley, Jerry Ragovoy and Jeff Barry. Berns's collaborators are listed in the Playbill, although with only initials for their first names.

Audience members who don't consult that page won't realize this, however. As Goldfarb scripts it, the impression given is that Berns wrote all the songs by himself. Nary a co-author is mentioned. Weird that a musical aiming to call attention to a songwriter not getting the credit he deserves ignores several other equally proficient songwriters surely worth a nod.