When it comes to Holocaust-inspired memoirs, “The Pianist of Willesden Lane,” which had its New York premiere at the 59E59 Theatre, is in a class all by itself.
A rare treat, the show interweaves memory and classical music performance by world-renowned pianist Mona Golabek who recreates her [pianist] mother Lisa Jura’s journey from 1938 Vienna to London as a Kindertransport refugee…and beyond.
Adapted from the book “The Children of Willesden Lane” by Ms. Golabek and Lee Cohen, it opens with Ms. Golabek coming out on stage in a black dress and glossy hair bob. She begins her memoir stands next to a Steinway grand while behind her on a floor-to-ceiling black velvet curtain hang oversize oddly shaped Dali-inspired empty gilt frames.
Mona Golabek and Gina // Photo by Karen Leon
“It is Vienna 1938 Friday afternoon and I am preparing for the most important hour of my week — my piano lesson” announces Golabek as she channels her 14-year-old mother Lisa. She recalls the Jewish section of the magical city Vienna where she lives. There are memories of Shabbos, and candle lighting.
Suddenly things change. Her father’s shop is closed. Gangs roam Vienna. Most devastating to her is the shock of her beloved professor Isseles telling her that “Teaching a Jewish child is now forbidden…. ’There will be no lessons any more…I am not a brave man.’” Golabek/Lisa revisits Isseles’ reaction to her performance of Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata—“’Legato! Make the phrase sing…. minor is not major!’” Golabek/Lisa then exquisitely performs the sonata on the stage Steinway.
Lisa is among the lucky few to be sent to England on a Kindertransport. Each recollection prompts Golabek in the guise of her teenage mother Lisa to perform a work of her repertoire. Passing through Holland she and her fellow refugee children and Lisa is befriended by fellow refugee Gina. Lisa makes a daring escape. A catalyst for yet another “memory” piano work — Debussy, Bach, Chopin, Gershwin. Gradually the once empty frames showcase images of the war’s ongoing pace — group photos, the Blitz.
Addressing the audience at concert’s end Golabek remarked: “ They were more than piano lessons. They were lessons in llfe — our folklore. It will always be through the music that I pay tribute to my mother’s life… to the grandparents I never knew and to every mother and father who had the courage to save their child by saying ‘goodbye’.” The entire audience was on its feet with many teary-eyed.
The day I saw the performance, there was a post-concert surprise. The arrival of Lisa’s Kindertransport/Bloomsbury House friend Gina!
Based on the best-seller “The Pianist of Willesden Lane,” this one-woman production was adapted and directed by **Hershey Felder” whose most recent Broadway and West End productions include the award-winning ”George Gershwin Alone.”
Playing till August 24th — Try not to miss!