The Arty Semite

Why 'Bert Berns Story' Is Best Summer Musical

By Curt Schleier

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Photo: Jenny Anderson

Bert Berns is the best pop songwriter you never heard of.

“Piece of My Heart: The Bert Berns Story” is the best new musical of the summer, and you heard that here first.

Berns was an angst-ridden Jewish kid from the Bronx, haunted by a weak heart and a doctor’s predictions that he wouldn’t live beyond 30. He died at 38, but not before writing a slew of hits including “Twist and Shout,” “Hang on Sloopy” and “Cry Baby” (among many others). He also produced early hits for Neil Diamond, Solomon Burke and Van Morrison (among others).

“Piece of My Heart” is a highly entertaining (if not entirely factual), toe-tapping retelling of Berns’s story. Book writer Daniel Goldfarb (“Modern Orthodox,” “Adam Baum and the Jew Movie”) has taken an imaginative approach.

Bert’s daughter, Jessie (Leslie Kritzler) gets a mysterious phone call urging her to return to New York, to her father’s office. When she gets there, she meets Carmine “Wassel” DeNoia (Joseph Siravo), her dad’s best friend, manager and supporter, who has mob connections.

He’s concerned because Jessie’s mom, Ilene (Linda Hart), is about to sell Bert’s catalogue. Jessie, who ostensibly was only 10 days old when her father passed away, knew nothing of this. She didn’t even know he had an office, so Wassel takes her on a journey into the past.

There is Berns in Cuba, where he adopts as a life motto Hillel’s aphorism: “If I am not for myself who is for me? And being for my own self, what am I? And if not now, when?”

He returns to the States and finds great success with “Twist and Shout,” recorded first by the Isley Brothers and then covered by the Beatles. He meets the young Ilene (Teal Wicks), a dancer, and they marry in a Jewish ceremony. He goes on to greater success with his own label, Bang (for Bert, Ahmet Ertegün, Nesuhi Ertegün and Gerald (Jerry) Wexler. But after a falling out, his revenge-minded partners conspire to keep Berns not only unknown, but out of both the song writers and rock ‘n’ roll halls of fame.

Though Berns wrote most of his songs with others, there is no hint of that in the play. He also didn’t have a daughter named Jesse. Cassie, here, is likely a composite of two of Berns’s three children, Brett and Cassandra, both of whom have been active in trying to establish their dad’s legacy.

But the truth is that the truth doesn’t matter. For those interested, a more accurate biography, “Here Comes the Night” by Joel Selvin, was recently published.

This is entertainment, and very entertaining it is. Jukebox musicals have become something of a theatrical rage lately, with mixed success. “Million Dollar Quartet,” about a famous jam session involving Elvis, Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis and Carl Perkins, ran for about a year, while “A Night With Janis Joplin” didn’t even manage that.

The more recent cash cows in this category are “Jersey Boys” and “Beautiful: The Carole King Musical.” “Piece of My Heart” is comparable to the former and better than the latter, in part because Goldfarb decided against a totally accurate narrative in favor of a more dramatic one.

It’s difficult to heap sufficient praise on the actors. Zak Resnick, who plays Bert Berns, is the next musical theater heartthrob. Derrick Baskin, who plays Berns’s friend Hoagy, brings down the house with his rendition of “Twist and Shout” during the show and the curtain call.

But everyone is of good voice, especially Kritzer, Hart, Wicks and De’Adre Aziza.

Denis Jones has done an outstanding job as director/choreographer and the scenic design by Alexander Dodge is award-worthy.

Everyone on stage seems to be having as a good time as the folks in the audience, and will at least until August 24 at Manhattan’s off-Broadway Signature Theater. Brett and Cassie Berns hope that Broadway producers come calling. Smart ones will.


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