THE PIANIST OF WILLESDEN LANE
July 23, 2014
“This is her story,” Mona Golabek shares, just before the lights dim. When they rise again she is transformed into the persona of fourteen-year-old Lisa Jura, a Jewish pianist in 1938 Vienna, not to mention the young girl who, in reality, became her mother.
The Pianist of Willesden Lane is based on the book The Children of Willesden Lane: Beyond the Kindertransport: A Memoir of Music, Love, and Survival, written by Golabek and Lee Cohen. The performance unfolds in a somewhat minimalist setting, with only a concert grand piano and some gold framed screens where photos and video are intermittently projected setting the scene of this historic recounting and putting faces to the names. This simple yet elegant scenic design parallels the performance well.
Golabek brings her mother’s life story to the state in this one-woman theatric and musical production, keenly directed by Hershey Felder. It is quickly apparent that the only constants in Jura’s life during this time of instability are her passion for music and the dream of her concert debut, following in the footsteps of her pianist mother. The tale begins with Jura finding herself without a piano teacher due to Nazi ordinances, her family’s lives turned upside down with the German infiltration. After a night of gambling awards her father wins one ticket for the sought-after train to freedom, the kindertransport, Jura is hurried aboard, leaving all her family behind and soon left to her own devices in London during the Blitz.
She ends up in a hostel on Willesden Lane with dozens of other refugee children - the “sardines” as house mother Mrs. Cohen calls them. Here, a powerful scene unfolds, recalling the evening Willesden Lane was bombed; Jura furiously continues playing Grieg’s Piano Concerto, op. 16; first movement Cadenza in the basement as destruction and explosions above rival the notes.
Months later Jura attends an audition at The London Royal Academy, which her housemates eagerly helped her prepare for. As the war wages on she makes the best of her scholarship, studying professionally as she always hoped to. She even makes her formal debut with - unbeknownst to her – her long-lost sisters in the audience, along with her future husband.
It’s a miraculous ending to Jura’s journey.
The assortment of live music throughout the program features some of the most well-known piano music, offering everything from Grieg to Bach, Gershwin, Beethoven, Debussy, and others. Golabek’s performance of these renowned compositions is as mesmerizing to watch as it is hypnotizing to hear and experience in the intimate space.
The Pianist of Willesden Lane succeeds through the richness in the tale of Jura’s journey, the interludes of exquisite live piano, and the overall sincerity of Golabek’s performance; the evening program is undeniably memorable. Performances take place at 59E59.
EYE ON THE ARTS, NY – Jenny Thompson