NY Theater Review by Elizabeth Ahlfors
Accompanying herself with the theatricality of classical piano pieces, Mona Golabek’s one-woman memoir tells the arresting story of 14-year-old piano prodigy, Lisa Jura. In 1938, Lisa is forced to leave the security of her family in Vienna as Nazi occupation and anti-Jewish laws loom dangerously close. An accomplished pianist, Golabek’s The Pianist of Willesden Lane, adapted and directed by Hershey Felder, is a gripping story and glorious musicianship that holds the packed 59E59 Theater audience riveted for 90 minutes.
Lisa Jura was Mona Golabek’s mother. The play is adapted from the 2002 book, The Children of Willesden Lane: Beyond the Kindertransport: A Memoir of Music, Love, and Survival (written by Golabek with Lee Cohen). Staging by Trevor Hay and Hershey Felder sets an elegant mood with large gold frames against a black backdrop, displaying photos and paintings relating to the plot. In the center, on a gold rimmed dais, is a Steinway concert grand piano, gleaming under a spotlight. In front of the piano, Golabek, wearing a red wig, tells Lisa’s tale and then sits at the keyboard to perform selections that highlight the flow of emotions — the theatricality of Rachmaninoff, a meditative Beethoven’s “Moonlight” Sonata, and of course, Grieg. These elevate the story with beauty and emotion.
Lisa has been encouraged to play the piano by her mother, a trained musician, but she advances on to study with one of Vienna’s well-known teachers. She treasures those lessons, putting on her best dress and hat (“I have to look divine”) for the trolley ride to the teacher’s home. When he tells her he can no longer teach her because she is Jewish, admitting, “I am not brave man,” Lisa is heartbroken.
Lisa’s dream has long been to perform Grieg’s “Piano Concerto in A Minor” on the stage at Vienna’s MusikVerein and this concerto continues as a recurring motif through the play. While she is distraught at the loss of her professor, Lisa’s mother promises to work with her. “The secret is in the layers — the layers of beautiful sound…”
However, the dangers in Vienna escalate. When her father’s tailor shop is ravaged, he turns to gambling. On the destructive Cristallnacht, he returns home very late, beaten and clutching a piece of paper. He has been gambling and won one ticket on the Kindertransport (the children’s train), the only safe escape route for children sensing impending tragedy. On these trains, they can escape to the safety of England. It is a prized ticket but there are three daughters in the family. Her parents decide the talented Lisa will go and so begins her absorbing journey of survival.
Hershey Felder’s direction secures a resonance in the story’s pace, following as Lisa matures, moves to different homes and makes her way into various family situations. She remains determined to get back to her family in Vienna and keep practicing to conquer the complexity of Grieg’s Concerto. Intriguing moments show her intensely practicing through the London blitz and later, auditioning for a place in the London Royal Academy of Music with a technical showpiece of Bach, Beethoven, a Chopin Scherzo and Scriabin Etude.
Heightening the drama are Christopher Rynne’s well-defined lighting, sound design by Erik Carstensen and, within the frames, Andrew Wilder and Greg Sowizdrzal’s projections following Lisa’s journey through the war.
As a young child Mona Golabek heard the stories her mother told her as she taught her daughter to play the piano. Like her mother, she proves in this show that “each piece of music tells a story.”
The Pianist of Willesden Lane opened in Los Angeles in 2012, and then Chicago, Boston and Berkeley. It is premiering in New York. Opening July 11 for a limited engagement through August 24. Single tickets are $70 ($49 for 59E59 Members). To purchase tickets, call Ticket Central at (212) 279-4200 or visit www.59e59.org. Running time is 90 minutes. No intermission.