“Being lonely is the only way with a clock ticking in your ear.” This sad elegance embodies the spirit of the legendary songwriter of such hits as “Twist and Shout”, who paradoxically has remained virtually unknown until the persistent efforts of two of his children, combined with the collaboration of an amazing team of talent, lead by playwright Daniel Goldfarb, brought Piece of My Heart, The Bert Berns Story to audiences in Bert’s hometown of Manhattan at the Irene Diamond Theater. Directed and choreographed by Denis Jones (Popesical), he masterfully off-sets the grueling self-exploration of the characters in a time of revolution with the physical interpretation of the music through dance and movement.
Starring as the 30 something-year-old Bert Burns is Zak Resnick (Momma Mia), who’s personification of a man who lived, desperate to be known as one of the great songwriters and who matured into the man who died with the meaningful desire to be known by his children through the music he left behind, chokes me up even as I write this. I’d also have him sing his version of “I Want Candy” over any other, any day! De’Adre Aziza (Passing Strange) portrays the inspiration for the song and damn, what a dame! Smart, sassy, sexy, the character lights him up and sets him straight before generously sending him off while allowing herself to be left behind. This story is as much about the women in his life as it is about the man.
The pairing of Leslie Kritzer (Legally Blonde) who plays Jessie, the youngest child and only daughter of Bert and his wife, Ilene, played by Linda Hart (Hairspray) is honest. Leslie humbly portrays a woman who is lost and directionless, without the advantage of having grown up with a father, while Linda is fearless, personifying a woman who was and is today one of the most important women in the music industry- no small feat especially in the context of her time. I wanted to hate them both: the one for being so whiny and self-consumed and the other for being intoxicated with her own sense of self-importance. Instead I fell in love with them as together they found reconciliation, integrating their feelings of abandonment with their intricate desperation for the love of this man who they thought gone forever, but who through the journey of his music found peace within themselves and purpose in their love for each other as Jessie found her father, as he wanted, through his gift of song.
Joseph Siravo (Jersey Boys) and Bryan Fenkhart (Memphis) play Wazzel, elder and younger respectively. Beautiful job synching the mannerisms and subtleties of one another, I really thought I was looking at the real life younger version of Siravo/Wazzel. What an interesting man he must have been with his gangster-like exterior ensconcing a heart of gold who’s vulnerability and grace gave him the courage to reveal his shame, intent on making things right.
Best friend of Bert was Hoagy Lands, played by Derrick Baskin (Memphis). His soulful voice emits pain and suffering while almost demanding that we rise above our circumstances and overcome- a perfect match to interpret Bern’s lyrics as a tribute to his legacy. Bravo! Teal Wicks (Wicked) cast as young Ilene was believable as the young Jewish dancer clawing to escape the humiliation of poverty but who set aside her own ambitions for the hope of the love of a man and happy-ever-after.
The ensemble, featuring Carleigh Bettiol who is a gorgeous dancer, melds into the story making them almost forgettable but without whom the telling of the tale would have no flavor. Thank-you Teresa Gattison, Shonica Gooden, Sydney James Harcourt (+1 for facial expressions), Jessica McRoberts, Ralph Meitzler, Harris Milgrim, Michael Millan, Heather Parcells, Gabrielle Ruiz, Amos Wolff, and the man who played what’s his name…Jerry something, Mark Zeisler. This production is clearly a labor of love with the entire team pulling for this man, who until now, has been forgotten, even as we all sing along to his songs whenever we hear them four decades later. The supporting cast was gracious as they consistently sacrificed themselves to elevate the star, not Zak, but rather a man who has been dead since 1967. (Interesting to note is that Otis Redding died only days before him and we all know who he is by name.)
And last, but certainly, not least, Piece of My Heart Orchestra…It must really be something to be playing the music written by one who’s tunes who served as an inspiration since their youth. Like the actors, they played to create an ambiance where this man’s struggle to have meaning in his life, through his talent and hard work, could be told in such a way that we were all left cheering for him. With their help, the next stop for Bertrand Russle Berns- Rock-N-Roll Hall of Fame!
This show is a must see for anyone who has sung along to “Brown Eyed Girl”, “Under the Boardwalk”, or the gut-wrenching song “Piece of My Heart” as well as for those who appreciate a great story of overcoming and quest. Stage manager, Matthew DiCarlo has this in the bag! Opening night was July 21 with a run time of one month, go now…and then take your mom. Get your tickets here!!
Review by: Michele Seven