The Pianist of Willesden Lane
Presented by ArtsEmerson at The Jackie Liebergott Black Box at the Paramount Center
November 23 - December 16, 2012
ArtsEmerson: The World On Stage presents Mona Golabek in The Pianist of Willesden Lane. Set in Vienna in 1938 and London during the Blitzkrieg, The Pianist of Willesden Lane tells the true story of Mona Golabek’s mother, noted pianist and author Lisa Jura. A young Jewish pianist, Lisa dreams of a concert debut at the storied Musikverein concert hall. When Lisa is swept up in the kindertransport, to protect her from the Nazi regime, everything about her life is upended except her love of music and her pursuit of that dream. Golabek performs some of the world’s most beloved piano music in this poignant tribute to her remarkable mother. Directed by Hershey Felder (who brought Leonard Bernstein and George Gershwin to life at ArtsEmerson last season), The Pianist of Willesden Lane is about hope, survival and how, through our darkest times, music has the power to help us survive.
Event Name: The Pianist of Willesden Lane
Article: The Pianist of Willesden Lane
Boston Arts Diary - Nov 30, 2012
A riveting account of the real-life experience of the talented pianist Lisa Jura – the mother of the performer of this piece, Mona Golabek – who...
A riveting account of the real-life experience of the talented pianist Lisa Jura – the mother of the performer of this piece, Mona Golabek – who grew up in Vienna and was saved from the Nazis in 1938 by means of the kindertransport, which at the eleventh hour spirited 10,000 Jewish children abroad.
In 1938, Lisa Jura is a young Jewish woman in Vienna, and a talented pianist. After Nazi brutalities begin, her father secures her passage on the kindertransport to England, where she spends the war years and tries to continue her musical studies. After initial missteps, she lands at a foster home on Willesden Lane in London, where she makes important connections that help set the stage for her life and career.
The sole actor in this theater piece is Mona Golabek, the middle-aged daughter of Lisa Jura. After a brief introduction as herself, Golabek takes on Jura’s identity for the remainder of the piece. Like her mother, Golabek is a talented pianist and brings that to bear throughout the performance by playing selections that represent parts of Jura’s early experience.
In the course of an hour and a half, Golabek vividly enacts her mother’s story as a young woman in Vienna, her escape from the Nazis to England, and her period of life in England during the war, embellishing and illustrating the narrative with evocative piano selections throughout.
Though set against the dire background of the Holocaust, Lisa Jura’s story of escape and resettlement is relatively straightforward. Once she has found safe passage to England, a good part of the drama consists in uncertainty about her piano studies, framed by worry for her family and curiosity about the young men who take a fancy to her.
Despite this straightforwardness, however, Golabek portrays, and musically anoints, the story so convincingly that even these relatively small dramas seem significant.
Golabek is a concert pianist and has had little experience as an actress. When she first appeared onstage, I wondered whether that unfamiliarity with dramatic performance might derail the whole show. In short order my concerns were assuaged. She made her mother’s life vivid in all of its details, while drawing, in words and music, her deeper and more pained yearnings towards continuation, and revitalization, through the piano.
This show was adapted and staged by Hershey Felder, the wonderful actor-pianist who brought Gershwin and Bernstein to life at ArtsEmerson last season.
It is no surprise that Felder has guided Golabek towards a similarly rewarding, though ever more personal, enactment through words and music. Golabek is indeed a very capable pianist and brings wonderful technique and interpretive depth to the variety of musical selections in the show. Included are numerous invocations of Grieg’s Piano Concerto, but also a beautiful interpretation of the opening of Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata, along with various Bach quotations and some jazzier stuff.
This whole genre of theatrical performance cum piano is taking charge in its own interesting way. Felder’s work alone has had quite an impact. But, as well, at the American Repertory Theatre last year there was a multi-person musical and dramatic show about Schubert’s song cycle, Winterreise, entitled Three Pianos, also very good.
With sincerity, passion and a good deal of theatrical intensity, Golabek and Felder have produced a small gem, a memorable work.
Event Name: The Pianist of Willesden Lane
Article: A daughter’s tribute in ‘The Pianist of Willesden Lane’
Boston Globe - Nov 29, 2012
By Dan Aucoin
There’s a formal, slightly reserved dignity to Mona Golabek’s demeanor through much of “The Pianist of Willesden Lane.’’ Attired in a...
There’s a formal, slightly reserved dignity to Mona Golabek’s demeanor through much of “The Pianist of Willesden Lane.’’ Attired in a simple black dress, she speaks earnestly and carefully. Her movements are equally deliberate, precise, and controlled.
And yet we do not feel emotionally distanced from her or from “The Pianist of Willesden Lane,’’ now at ArtsEmerson. Quite the opposite.
Though global turmoil surrounds the personal episodes depicted onstage, Golabek and director Hershey Felder create an overall atmosphere of quiet intimacy in this 90-minute solo show. It’s as if she is leafing through a family album, summoning memories, sharing confidences, showing us the pictures, and explaining why so many pages are empty.
The tale Golabek has to tell — and we do sense that she has to tell it — is of her own mother, Lisa Jura, a child prodigy and aspiring pianist who fled the Nazis as a young teenager. It’s a story not just of the life Jura left behind but of the life she built. As Golabek portrays her mother from adolescence to early adulthood, she returns repeatedly — reverently — to a gleaming grand piano on the stage of the Paramount Center’s Jackie Liebergott Black Box Theater. Golabek’s performances of the classical pieces Jura loved (by Chopin, Debussy, Beethoven, and especially Grieg) do the work words can’t do.
This marriage of music and biographical storytelling is a specialty of Felder, who adapted “The Children of Willesden Lane,’’ a book co-written by Golabek and Lee Cohen. Felder recently appeared at ArtsEmerson in his own one-man shows, “George Gershwin Alone’’ and “Maestro: Leonard Bernstein.’’ Gershwin and Bernstein, of course, are household names, and Lisa Jura is not. Yet by the end we feel we know her.
We definitely admire her. Felder’s script and Golabek’s performance blend into a portrait of a remarkable young woman whose combination of self-possession, romantic idealism, and dogged resilience kept her afloat when others might well have foundered.
A melodramatic tone does suffuse “The Pianist of Willesden Lane’’ from time to time, and there are a couple of other missteps. At the beginning, while Golabek is slipping into character, prerecorded orchestral music swells and continues to surge through the theater for several moments, nearly drowning out Jura’s words just as we’re getting to know her. Later, in a misguided comic touch, we hear a woman’s prerecorded voice spluttering at inordinate length and high volume from the other end of a telephone line.
But on balance Felder shows restraint and sensitivity in his adaptation and direction alike, and Golabek, a concert pianist of note, mostly steers clear of mawkishness, even as she delivers an exceptionally heartfelt daughter-to-mother tribute.
Jura’s love of the piano was at the center of her being from an early age, and the instrument proved to be her lifeline during the years of upheaval that began when she was 14, a Jewish girl living with her parents and two sisters in 1938 Vienna. She dreamed of performing Grieg’s Piano Concerto with the Vienna Philharmonic. But the Nazi persecution of Jews was intensifying. Early in “The Pianist of Willesden Lane,’’ Golabek’s Jura describes seeing her father, Abraham, being beaten by soldiers; then the performer channels Abraham as he tells his wife, in a trembling voice, how they forced him and other men to dance naked in the street.
Abraham manages to secure a single ticket for a place on the Kindertransport, the system of trains and ferries that took Jewish children from Germany and Austria to England. Golabek movingly depicts the anguish of Jura’s mother, Malka, who with her husband must choose which of their children to send to safety.
The set, by David A. Buess and Trevor Hay, evokes a picture gallery with large gilt frames. Projection designers Greg Sowizdrzal and Andrew Wilder fill them with resonant images: of Jewish families hastening to get children aboard the Kindertransport, of row upon row of girls and women at sewing machines in a manufacturing plant, of warplanes darkening the sky and soldiers landing on the beach at Normandy.
“The Pianist of Willesden Lane’’ takes us through Jura’s private journey in those years of tumult. She endures the Blitz in London, including the bombing of the hostel where she lives. She works in a garment factory while constantly fearing for her family: Her letters keep coming back stamped “Unable to deliver.’’ She holds her breath after applying for a scholarship at London’s Royal Academy of Music. She finally makes her concert debut — playing Grieg’s Piano Concerto. Along the way, she meets a French Resistance fighter who tells her she is the most beautiful woman he has ever seen.
It is not a spoiler to say that the man, named Michel Golabek, followed her to America after the war. They married and had two daughters, Mona and Renee. And Lisa Jura taught both of them how to play the piano.