The Pianist of Willesden Lane, now in its New York premiere at 59E59 Theaters, is based on the book The Children of Willesden Lane: Beyond the Kindertransport: A Memoir of Music, Love and Survival by Mona Golabek and Lee Cohen. Like the book the play centers around the life of Lisa Jura and her experiences as a teen in 1930s Vienna during the rise of the Third Reich, up to the takeover by the Nazis and her separation from her family when she was sent to England via the Kindertransport, which saved her from the concentration camps.
Portrayed by her real-life daughter Mona Golabek, noteworthy concert pianist, Grammy nominee and founder of the Hold On To Your Music foundation the play follows Jura as a budding and talented piano player whose dream is to become a great concert pianist. After she is thwarted by Nazism because of her Jewish heritage, her goals appear to be destroyed even after she is sent to relative safety in England.
How Lisa Jura manages to thrive and continue to pursue her dream to become a concert pianist is the focus of Golabek’s tribute to her mother, as Jura overcomes the obstacles that delayed her quest to express her virtuoso talent.
Golabek unfolds the majesty of her mother’s triumph in the face of overwhelming odds through narrating a chronicle of her life in Vienna, her voyage to England, and her stay on Willesden Lane in London at the home of a caretaker of many refugees. The tale is told with words and piano concerti and Golabek’s consummate piano playing. The beauty of Jura’s story-song-memoir is exemplified by the piano pieces, which have symbolic meaning in Jura’s life, representing vital turning points along her journey to greatness.
These begin with the first movement of Grieg’s Piano Concerto in A Minor, and move toward closure with the magnificent and very difficult Rachmaninoff Prelude in C-sharp Minor, op. 3, no. 2. The theme comes full circle back to Grieg, with the third movement of his Piano Concerto in A Minor.
Directed by Hershey Felder, who also adapted the play from Golabek’s and Cohen’s book, Golabek portrays her mother with grace, beauty and the great intelligence that only a daughter who adores and appreciates her mother could. The music and Golabek’s narration and acting of the events flow so seamlessly that one is able to easily feel Jura’s nostalgia, her excitement auditioning, her sadness amidst the backdrop of Nazi Vienna and the bombing of London. The historical elements are acutely enhanced by black and white photographs of family, city locations, the people in both cities, and moving pictures of the time. These are well chosen as an accompaniment to Golabek’s magnificent artistry as she plays Beethoven, Debussy and Chopin, to name a few. They also serve as a visual backdrop to ground this historical record in accuracy.
As a pianist Golabek is a consummate performer and it is a joy to hear and watch her play. As an actress portraying her mother, she captures Lisa Jura’s wistfulness, innocence, excitement, great good will and hope for the future. Without giving away too much, the development of the play as it shares the life of Lisa Jura up to the point where she meets her beloved is truly poetic.
Mona Golabek’s artistry is heartfelt and never maudlin; she somehow manages to remain in a state of removed objectivity in order to portray her mother and make her live with honesty and truthfulness. The production is breathtaking as a result of Golabek’s great love and effusion of joy in bringing her mother’s memoir to the stage.
This must-see, must-experience production is at 59E59 Theaters until August 24.