A one-woman show playing at the Berkeley Rep (adapted and directed by Hershey Felder) is so emotionally riveting that it must reach Broadway and beyond.
In The Pianist of Willesden Lane, Mona Golabek weaves a dramatic wartime story in music and words, producing a unique theatrical experience.
With the expressive framing of the Grieg Piano Concerto, Golabek retraces her mother, Lisa Jura’s life at a poignant juncture–when her childhood dreams of becoming a concert pianist are “interrupted by the Nazi regime.” In a Kindertransport from Vienna to London that’s arranged by her Jewish parents following Kristallnacht (November 9, 1938), the 14-year old is painfully separated from a nest of familial love and cultural wealth. Yet she “holds on to the piano” as a vestige of hope through a series of emotionally challenging ordeals.
These include include housing relocations, and journeys from tedious factory sewing to entrance at the Royal Academy of Music. In every personal life transition Lisa makes, her mother, (also a pianist and once her teacher) is spiritually present to reinforce the power and beauty of music to ensure survival. It’s a message she embedded in her daughter’s psyche before their separation.
The epic Grieg Piano concerto is thematically woven through 90 minutes of captivating theater. It’s revealed in Golabek’s introduction as Lisa’s concert debut wish fulfillment. (LIVE music gushes forth from a concert Steinway in pulsating waves with sequenced portraits of family and wartime events. These light up the stage in an impressive multi-media display)
As the narrative unfolds, Willesden Lane becomes the most settling nest for Jura amidst her relocations. It’s where she finds a treasured basement piano that becomes the hub for enduring friendships and emotional support—a springboard to a life of musical recognition at the Royal Academy and a paid playing opportunity at a lavish Hotel. A wealth of admirers follow.
Golabek, a sensitive pianist and convincing actress, intersperses her mother’s memoir with generous servings of Grieg’s composition to bravura levels at dramatic moments where needed, while she liquidly turns a phrase in poetic mood shifts. Almost beyond belief is her ability to brave technically challenging pianistic terrain, while simultaneously spinning the events of Jura’s life in vivid detail.
An astounding pianistic interpreter, Mona Golabek reveals musical insights that exceed the bounds of any specific historical era. In the course of her solo performance, she delivers the works of Bach, Beethoven, Chopin, Debussy, and Scriabin with musical depth and profound expression. Selections, including the Moonlight Sonata, Chopin’s E minor Prelude, Claire de Lune, the Grieg Concerto, etc., are revisited in a memorable CD that I purchased post performance and had instantly autographed. (The proceeds fund scholarships and other worthy causes)
Without a doubt, Golabek would make her mother proud by this living, breathing, musically draped memoir. Technique, expression, emotion, nuance, are all bundled together in a perfect theatrical framing, making the Pianist of Willesden Lane, not only a gift to Berkeley, but one that is boundless in its reach.
A post-performance audience interactive with Mona
The Pianist of Willesden Lane is based on the book, The Children of Willesden Lane by Mona Golabek and Lee Cohen.
The Berkeley Rep is located at Addison off Shattuck.
For tickets, telephone, 510-647-2949
Hold on to your Music Foundation