What is to be done about the biographical musical? A play like Passing Strange showed it could be its own unique animal: reveling in messy individuality rather than trying to tidy up its subject's story, the 2008 musical captured the texture of a singular life far more satisfyingly than had it followed the earnest traditions of the genre. Yet bio-musicals keep turning to the same reductive formula, songs dovetailing with simplified plot points to guarantee maximum accessibility. Accuracy is tossed out the window along with nuance, leaving audiences to either suspend reason and swallow sagas whole, or watch at a remove, uncertain which parts are (sort of) true, and which are fabricated to hit those bullet points deemed essential to commercial success.
Piece of My Heart, the play now attempting to rescue songwriter Bertrand Russell ("Bert") Berns from obscurity at the Signature Center's pleasing Pershing Square outpost, battles this conundrum, and itself: its odd, potentially fascinating story is hampered by a trumped-up plot motor and the shoehorning of unconventional history into a conventional structure. Yet its undercooked book is interlaced with an abundance of original music exquisitely performed.
If Piece is any indication, Berns' work is characterized by bluntly direct emotion; not for Bert the subtle turn of phrase or complex subtext. (Hearts, tears and someone's arms around someone appear in nearly every song, at least those chosen for the play.) The offerings here are, it should be noted, a fraction of Berns' catalog, and in their own way as exhilarating as those on display further uptown in the (equally simplified) Carole King musical Beautiful.
The cast give stirring performances, even with characters as devoid of subtext as Berns' irresistibly catchy songs. De'Adre Aziza makes a strong impression as Berns' first love and creative/sexual mentor, and Teal Wicks is affecting as the woman he ultimately settles on only to abandon. The gifted Leslie Kritzer, as a composite of Berns' children, is hamstrung by the heavy plot lifting of her character's unglamorous central role. Also saddled with heavy-handed explication that leaves little room for nuance or playfulness is Linda Hart, as the mother who has consistently misled her daughter about her father. (Hart, at least, is given a wild showstopper of an eleven o'clock number.) Joe Siravo's unmodulated thug leans heavily on stereotype, while Derrick Baskin's appealing vocalist, who gets to bring down the house with a rousing Twist and Shout, is given little to do besides act loyal and get betrayed. Yet even with a ham-fisted, lopsided and sometimes bizarre book, the production is relentlessly entertaining, energized by luscious harmonies, fleet choreography and a stage rich with ardently engaged talent, including unexpectedly winning lead Zak Resnick, whose vanilla affect belies considerable charisma.
Piece of My Heart might have taken a cue from those works that jettison or bend convention to allow their subjects room to breathe; like Passing Strange or the infectious Hedwig and the Angry Inch, it could have better served its story by letting its freak flag fly. Still, it does do the one thing every good bioplay should: leave audiences hungry to find out more about the person whose tale is being acted out on stage. Here's hoping the inevitable biopic will ditch the formula and focus on capturing the weird essence of a man who packed a lifetime of experiences into a too-short life, and whose name deserves to be known to all.