by Lynn Marie Macy · July 26, 2014
Mona Golabek in THE PIANIST OF WILLESDEN LANE
The Pianist of Willesden Lane is an evening in the theater that you will not soon forget. Based on the The Children of Willesden Lane, A Memoir of Music, Love and Survival by Mona Golabek and Lee Cohen, the play is a heartfelt tribute to the life of Golabek’s mother, concert pianist Lisa Jura, who as a girl was sent on the Kinder Transport from Nazi occupied Austria to London, and incorporating music by Grieg, Beethoven, Mozart, Bach and Rachmaninoff. In 1938 Vienna Lisa says, “I can hear their music in the marble of the buildings and in the stones of the streets.”
Concert pianist and storyteller Mona Golabek takes us on a journey through Lisa Jura’s young life in Vienna and her experiences as a Jewish girl in Nazi occupied Austria. At fourteen Lisa dreams of making her debut as a concert pianist with the Vienna Philharmonic but suffers a shock when her music professor informs her that he is no longer allowed to teach Jewish students. The magical city dissolves around her and she finally sees “the ugly men with rifles and arm bands” who are now everywhere. Lisa’s mother takes over her instruction as her father struggles as a tailor and falls into gambling to support his family. After witnessing her father being beaten by gangs of Nazi’s on Kristallnacht, Abraham Jura returns home having won one “ticket to freedom. A place on the Kinder Transport.” But Lisa has two sisters and Lisa’s parents have t make the heartbreaking decision between them. Lisa boarded the train that very night. “Never stop playing and hold on to your music” Lisa’s mother tells her. And Vienna and her family were gone.
After a series of misadventures in England Lisa finally ends up in a group home on Willesden Lane with other refugee children run by Mrs. Cohen. Lisa has found her connection and a piano to play at last.
Lisa’s journey to maturity through war time London, social struggles and musical dedication lead her to an audition for a scholarship at the London’s Royal Academy of Music where she realizes her dreams, finds her purpose and achieves a sense of belonging.
Director and Adaptor Hershey Felder has shaped a seamless musical, a visual and emotional saga of survival with depth, imagination and heart. Mona Golabek author of the book and the daughter of Jura tells her mother’s story with such earnest sincerity that we feel we have indeed met Lisa Jura herself and despite her lack of acting experience, she engages the audience throughout. Golabek’s expertise at the key board (a generational legacy) is worth the price of admission.
The scenic design by Trevor Hay and Felder plays a vital role in the unfolding of the narrative. Large gold frames float above the stage where projections of photos and film highlight moments from the story and ground the proceedings in realism and truth. A beautiful black grand piano sits atop a gold-rimmed platform and two other platforms to each side with steps allow for multiple locations and levels.
The projections by Andrew Wilder and Greg Sowizdzral are at various times haunting and heart wrenching. Lighting by Christopher Rynne effortlessly blends the visual elements. Sound by Eric Carstensen perfectly supports the action and the costumer Jaclyn Macduff gives Golabek a simple period silhouette in black that works throughout. But it is Lisa Jura’s favorite musical pieces that take center stage: beautiful, lasting and uplifting particularly as played by her daughter with passion, dedication and feeling.
Images, sounds and events, stay with you - one particular stirring scene is Lisa feverishly playing the piano as the bombs drop around her because she chose practice over the safety of a shelter. The Pianist of Willesden Lane will lure, lull you and then, jar you back to attention. It may also inspire you to go out and buy the book!