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Theater Review: Piece of My Heart Really Needed Some Brains

Jersey Boys, which should have been a cautionary tale, has become instead a how-to guide. (Half a billion in Broadway receipts will do that.) It has not only spawned an infestation of jukebox biomusicals but also codified the key elements of the genre. First among these is that there should be a baldly narrated framing device (a Carnegie Hall concert, a death, a reunion) from which the plot flashes back to the difficulties of the songwriter’s early life (an overprotective mother, the Holocaust). The intervening years should be précised as quickly and hysterically as possible — crises only — leaving plenty of room for songs whose necks have been twisted so their unlikely emergence in the narrative will elicit a gasp of surprise. (Optional: These songs should be plunked out on a piano by a Jewish shlemiel before a trio of bespangled black singers magically materializes to apply the shamalamadingdong.) Throughout, characters should use dialogue not to advance the plot but to provide information everyone onstage would already know. And all this must lead to a curtain-call sing-along of the musician’s catchiest hit. 

Nothing good has yet come of this formula — certainly not Beautiful or Motown or Soul Doctor. But until Piece of My Heart, nothing irredeemably horrid had come of it either. So: Cause to celebrate! We have hit rock bottom.

The show purports to tell the story of the songwriter and producer Bert Berns, whose 1960s hits included “Twist and Shout,” “Here Comes the Night,” “Hang on Sloopy,” and the title number. It certainly hits its Jersey Boys marks. The frame is particularly rococo: Berns’s daughter, Jessie, a struggling current-day singer-songwriter, gets a call in which a “dark mysterious voice” summons her to New York because “something very wrong is about to happen.” It seems that Berns’s widow, Ilene, a former go-go dancer, is preparing (without the children’s permission) to sell her husband’s catalogue to a major music company, thus ensuring he will forever remain “nothing more than a footnote” in the history of rock. With an old gangster — he of the mysterious voice — as her cicerone, Jessie delves into her dad’s past (cue the flashbacks) and learns that he was a genius, a man of deep soul, a friend to the Negro (except when betraying his actual black friend), a family man despite being a horndog, a brilliant talent-spotter, a nice Jewish boy, and a gunrunner in Cuba. Did I mention that a bout of rheumatic fever at 15 left him with a bum ticker and a bad case of stage fatalism? (Cue any number of songs featuring the word “heart.”)

All this is clearly a mess; whether it’s true or not is harder to ascertain. Some details have been changed (Berns’s actual daughter, who along with one of her brothers is the show’s lead producer, is named Cassandra, not Jessie) while others have been left alone (Berns did die at age 38 at the peak of a phenomenally successful string of hits). But most of the story falls into a murky middle that leaves you unsure of what you’re watching, an insane biography or an unpleasant fable. Berns’s wife was indeed a go-go dancer named Ilene — but was she a scheming, bobbleheaded witch? Did Berns really have an affair with a stunning black chanteuse named Candace Carmichael or has she been jimmied into the story just so the song “I Want Candy” will work? (“Work” is too strong a word for what it does.) Throughout, there are so many groan-worthy forced connections, unprompted encomia (“There probably wouldn’t be a state of Israel if it wasn’t for your father”) and WTF moments that, whether true or false, you just don’t care. Or worse, you start to feel that someone’s trying to put something over on you. Particularly unresolved is the question of whether Berns used his gangster pals as enforcers. A throwaway reference to whacking Van Morrison on the head with a guitar is played for laughs; are we also supposed to laugh when a recalcitrant business partner gets beaten until bloody? Some might think it important to have a clear take on such events; musicals don’t look good in whitewash.

Yet all this is no worse than, say, Soul Doctor, which among other things ignored persistent accusations of sexual harassment against its title character, Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach. (His daughter was one of that show’s producers; is this a trend?) What truly makes Piece of My Heart a breakthrough in badness is the quality of the writing moment by moment. From a too-long script just bursting with evidence I offer but one brief exchange between our hero and a pimp-revolutionary he meets in Havana: 

BERT: I mean I get it now, the sounds of your city, your music.
CARLOS: Our music is our pain, our passion, our ecstasy, our despair. It is us. And we are it.
BERT: You ever heard of Hillel, Carlos?
CARLOS: Is he a comrade?

Is this actually the work of the respectable playwright Daniel Goldfarb, as the program claims, or of a hack publicist for the Berns heirs? Certainly the show has not been done on the cheap. The physical production, though often ugly, is elaborate. There’s a cast of 20 and a band of 8: both quite large for Off Broadway. (Most of the performers, including Zak Resnick as Berns, are charming enough, and sing the groovy arrangements well, but only Leslie Kritzer, as Jessie, and Derrick Baskin, as Berns’s betrayed pal, find ways to shape some kind of character around their shoehorned songs.) Nevertheless, Denis Jones, who directed and choreographed, does not seem to have found a way to marshal these resources toward any coherent end. The staging fails to answer basic questions of where and when, and his rock-and-roll dances emphasize the social conventionality of the songs while the book is trying to bend them toward individual psychodrama, thus straining the already tenuous connection between the music and the story. 

In any case, there was probably no hope for this material in this format, which is part of a reinvention bid that also includes a biography and a documentary. The family clearly has some scores to settle, though it’s not clear whom they mean to settle them on. In any case, neither revenge nor brand extension is a good motivation for a musical, even when gussied up as an act of historical rescue. And there, this Jersey Boys wannabe fails most of all. Incredibly, Goldfarb has Berns actually grab for a pad of paper to scratch out the words “My children will know me through my music” as he’s writhing in his death throes. Well, maybe. But if any of the rest of us get to know him, it won’t be through this show.

Piece of My Heart is at the Pershing Square Signature Center through August 31. 

Photo: Jenny Anderson