BWW Reviews: PIECE OF MY HEART Should Let The Jukebox Do The Talking
Not since a helpful character named Rhonda suddenly popped up in the Beach Boys jukebox musical Good Vibrations has there been such a groan-worthy song cue as the one in Piece Of My Heart, where a conveniently named temptress name Candace becomes the target of affection for the guy who wrote "I Want Candy."
Shortly after, our hero's latest bed-mate inspires him to write another hit, but is turned off by his random choice to change her name to Sloopy.
And did you hear the one about the mob-connected tough guy who turns into a one-man girl group giving romantic advice with "Tell Him"?
If there's the potential for an interesting musical lurking somewhere in the life story of songwriter/producer Bert Berns, bookwriter Daniel Goldfarb hasn't revealed it in his clunky scenario that drags mercilessly as the audience waits for director/choreographer Denis Jones' talented company to liven up the proceedings go-go-going with swinging 60s sass.
Berns, as is mentioned by the woman who witnesses his writing of "Hang On, Sloopy" as post-coital entertainment, never achieved personal fame as a songwriter, though he's credited with composing and/or producing over 50 hits during a career that was cut short in 1967 when, at age 38, he succumbed to heart disease brought on by a teenage case of rheumatic fever.
Aside from the aforementioned, his most memorable hits include "Cry Baby," "Twist and Shout" (the musical's showpiece number"), the title tune and, of course, the timeless love song, "Show Me Your Monkey."
Zak Resnick is an engaging bundle of cocky energy as the budding songwriter who learns an appreciation for Cuban rhythms in Castro's Havana and, in one of the book's fabricated moments, drives Phil Spector out of a recording studio so he can arrange "Twist and Shout" his way. In real life Spector produced a single of the number for The Top Notes and Berns, who didn't like the arrangement, later produced a cover for The Isley Brothers. In Piece of My Heart, the tune becomes a rousing rhythm and blues showcase for Berns' buddy Hoagy, played by the smoky-voiced Derrick Baskin.
Running parallel with scenes of Berns' rise to fame is the story of his daughter Jessie, a struggling singer/songwriter who was only a couple of months old when he passed on. Jesse is played by dynamic musical comedy performer Leslie Kritzer, whose formidable talents are wasted here.
After receiving a mysterious phone call from her dad's old wiseguy chum Wazzel (Joseph Siravo is the older version and Bryan Fenkart the younger), Jessie heads to his old office where she finds out that her mother (Linda Hart) is about to sell the rights to the entire Berns catalogue. The premise allows Wazzel a chance to tell the young musician some of the details of her father's life that have been kept from her. (Piece of My Heart is produced by Berns' actual children, neither of whom is named Jessie.)
Though the slick production surely entertains when it sings and dances, Goldfarb's book incorporates most of the songs in traditional musical theatre fashion, as real life expressions of emotions. This is deadly for any musical trying to tell a serious story since the music and lyrics rarely match the specifics of the characters and situations.
Sometimes it's best to just let the jukebox do the talking.