Bert Berns was an American song writer and producer in the 1960s. An original sixties rock ‘n roller and writer of soul, he made a mark in popular music, particularly with “Here Comes The Night”, “Hang on Sloopy”, “Twist and Shout” and the title song of this latest jukebox revuesical.
These are the four most remembered titles from the show’s long song list, and if they mean nothing to you, there isn’t much for you at the Signature Theatre way west of 42nd Street in New York, where Merged Work Productions is attempting to repeat what Jersey Boys did for Frankie Valli and Beautiful did for Carole King. With an excellent cast of young talents, and fluid staging by Denis Jones, they have almost succeeded. But alas, they are not working with first rate material, and as a 16th Century English clergyman first quoted someone in his flock: “You can’t make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear.”
Not that all of Mr. Berns’ work is rubbish. It just isn’t up there with the best of the lot. “Show Me Your Monkey” may have amused some folks once, “I Want Candy” (referring to a young lady) will never replace the “Indian Love Call” on the A list of courting calls. “Cry to Me” and “Cry Baby” had their moments in the sun, but they fail in competition with “Cry Me A River” and “I Cried For You.” “Are You Lonely For Me Baby” asks that question about six times as it runs its course, and even though it opens this revue with a well lit and well sung segment, it lets us know right up front that we are not in for an evening of Cole Porter. Or Bert Bachrach. Or anyone truly memorable.
The “book” by Daniel Goldfarb does its job in journeyman fashion, filling us in on the uneventful and ordinary life which young Bert lived before he was old enough to set out on his quest for fame and fortune in music. Almost knocked out of the box by bad luck and a weak heart which he’d inherited from an early bout of rheumatic fever, he fought back, fueled by ambition and courage to pursue his dream. But even as he began to taste success, he was mowed down by people reminding him that the public may have known a song or two of his, but they had no idea who wrote them. He wanted more, and at 38, exhausted from the pressures, he collapsed and died.
Mr. Goldfarb has peopled his story with Bert’s daughter, friend and wife, all of whom joined him in looking back at his earlier life via intermittent flashbacks. An interesting concept, but not an easy one to follow, and there were some confusing moments as both his middle aged and young wife appeared in scenes together. His private life was eventful enough, but somewhat tawdry and I kept thinking, “Not everyone is entitled to an onstage biography.” Bert Berns was an okay guy with a modest talent and a large appetite for the spotlight, and this 2 1/2 hour tribute in revue form seemed unworthy of all the effort.
An attractive and talented company of almost twenty certainly gave us their all. Zak Resnick’s “Bert”, Linda Hart’s wife “Ilene”, Leslie Kritzer’s “daughter Jessie” are all first rate. Jessie’s determination to restore her dead father to a proper place in musical history is thwarted at every turn by her mother who wants to sell the rights to the entire Berns catalog for the cash it will bring. Jessie’s growth as a character is about all we get in the way of plot, though Bert does have enough opportunity to betray a best friend, to out maneuver his business partners, to put his relentless drive toward fame first – always.
I thought Denis Jones, new to me, was adroit and inventive in moving a large cast on and off stage, often igniting them into attractive dance patterns. Of course when all is overshadowed by a grotesquely over amped sound system, all is lost. I checked audience members during the intermission, and talked to two members of the staff in the spacious lobbies of the Pershing Square Signature Theatre, and to a man and woman, each said, “Yes, it’s much too loud”, but one went on to add “they’ll never fix it. I think the sound levels were set by young boys, already hearing impaired by their constant exposure to high volume on ear phones.”
The Signature is an attractive, spartan space with no carpets or drapes, no curtain or wall covering to control the sound, so the sound levels throughout were annoying at best, and lethal at worst. A pity because this cast did not need that sort of “help”. When will they learn? Perhaps when their audiences, already dwindling, give up on “live” theatre entirely, for it is no longer live.
Piece of My Heart is onstage thru August 31, 2014 at The Pershing Square Signature Center, 480 W. 42nd Street (Between 9th and 10th Ave), NYC. Details and tickets
Richard Seff, Broadway performer, agent, playwright, librettist, columnist adds novelist to his string of accomplishments, with the publication of his first novel, TAKE A GIANT STEP. His first book, Supporting Player: My Life Upon the Wicked Stage, celebrates his lifetime on stage and behind the scenes. Both books are available through online booksellers, including Amazon.com.
He has also written the book to SHINE! The Horatio Alger Musical which was a triple prize winner at the New York Musical Theatre Festival (NYMF).
Each year, Actors Equity recognizes the year’s most outstanding supporting player with, appropriately enough, the Richard Seff Award.