"Cry Baby," "Everybody Needs Somebody to Love," "Hang On Sloopy," "Here Comes the Night," "I Want Candy," "Piece of My Heart," "Tell Him," "Twist and Shout" - all big hits of the '60s, performed by artists as varied as Solomon Burke, The Exciters, Janis Joplin, and The Strangeloves. What do they have in common? They were all written or co-written by Bert Berns. Never heard of him? That's what Piece of My Heart: The Bert Berns Story, currently playing at the Pershing Square Signature Center, sets out to rectify.
The show is clearly a labor of love, if not a cause, for the producers, Brett and Cassandra Berns, who were too young to remember their father, who died at the age of 38 in 1967. Living with a weak heart brought on childhood rheumatic fever, Berns managed to produce 51 chart singles in seven years. His race to accomplish so much in the face of imminent mortality - and his battle to do it his way - make for a dramatic story. And with a strong cast, led Zak Resnick as Bert and Leslie Kritzker as his daughter (called Jessie in the play), performing all those great songs, it's an enjoyable evening.
If the book were equally strong, it would be a great evening. The book, by Daniel Goldfarb, uses Jessie's struggle with her mother over the sale of Bern's publishing as a device to frame the plot. While apparently based on fact, it makes for some awkward transitions and relies on some of Berns' weaker songs as musical payoffs to the action. And there are insinuations that after Berns forced his mentor Jerry Wexler of Atlantic Records to back down in a business confrontation, Wexler vowed that Berns would never get credit for his work. That's a pretty serious charge.
It would've been interesting to know more about how the songs got written (with a range of collaborators) and how he came to work with Van Morrison, Neil Diamond, and Jimmy Page (a session guitarist before forming Led Zeppelin, who arguably got signed to Atlantic Records because of Berns' relationship with the label), among many others. There is one scene showing how a year in Cuba influenced Berns in writing "Twist and Shout." I'd never detected that from the Isley Brothers' and Beatles' recordings. Of course, they're among the greatest rock & roll records of all time, and when the cast does the song as an encore, there's not a single member of the audience who's not up and dancing, twisting and shouting, and thanking Bert Berns for those immortal songs.