Performance on January 24, 2020
TheatreWorks Silicon Valley scored a tremendous theatrical success when it chose to present The Pianist of Willesden Lane, now being performed at the Mountain View Center for the Performing Arts through February 16.
Adapted and directed by Hershey Felder, who has himself brought a host of brilliant composers to the stage, “The Pianist” combines a flawless performance of classical music with intimate and heartfelt storytelling. Solo performer Mona Golabek, her auburn hair gleaming, tells the riveting story of a young Jewish musician caught up in the Holocaust and the impact of that story on her daughter.
With a central focus on music as an emotional thread running throughout the story, Golabek’s heartrending performance succeeds at every turn.
In her immensely moving performance, Golabek tells the riveting story of her mother, Lisa Jura. The story begins in Vienna in 1938, when Lisa, a 14-year-old Jewish girl living with her family in Vienna, is about to take off for her piano lesson. She’s dressed in her favorite blouse, she’s added her favorite shoes, and she travels by trolley through the beautiful city of Vienna to meet with her highly regarded piano teacher.
She’s stunned when she discovers that her teacher can no longer give her lessons. Nazi soldiers surround his building, and he tells Lisa that he cannot teach Jewish students anymore.
Lisa’s mother begins teaching her piano. But the family faces increasing Nazi restrictions on their lives. One day Lisa’s father by happenstance comes across a ticket enabling one child to leave on the now-famed Kindertransport for London, England, and the family decides to send Lisa.
Leaving her parents and siblings behind is terribly hard, but escaping Nazi-occupied Austria allows Lisa to have a safer life in London. When they part, her mother tells her to always hold on to music to help her through life, and Lisa never forgets that admonition.
Although she finds it difficult to adjust to her new home on Willesden Lane, along with the other children who have escaped Nazi occupation, Lisa finally makes many friends there. She later discovers a piano in the home’s basement, enabling her to resume the pursuit of music that allows her to emotionally survive the war. The London blitz destroys many of the buildings on Willesden Lane, including the children’s home, but Lisa continues to find meaning in her life elsewhere until the home is rebuilt.
Toward the end of the war, Lisa’s proficient piano-playing leads to a happier part of her story. She is urged by her friends to audition at the Royal Academy of Music, where she has a brilliant audition. She had been working at a factory on sewing machines that present a threat to her hands. So when she’s accepted at the Academy, and a teacher becomes aware of her talent, she is extracted from her hazardous factory job. Instead, she earns money playing the piano for Allied soldiers at a cabaret in a London hotel (many of the soldiers admire her stunning red hair). There she meets a French soldier who will become her husband and eventually whisk her off to a new life in the United States.
Golubek is the happy result of that marriage. She first told this story (with Lee Cohen) in a book, Children of Willesden Lane, and now the story has captured audiences in her live performance ever since it premiered at the Geffen Playhouse in Los Angeles. It has garnered rave reviews from the L.A. Times, the New York Times, and the SF Chronicle, and it has captivated audiences who have sold out performances across the country.
Two elements of this performance stand out. First, the blending of the story with the outstanding piano performance by Golabek. Her choices begin with my longtime favorite, the Grieg piano concerto, which becomes a constant theme in the story and is played by Golabek to perfection. (Ever since I saw the Broadway musical Song of Norway in a summer stock production when I was about 7 or 8, I’ve loved many of the enchanting Grieg melodies, and I’m especially awed by the magnificent piano concerto. So for me, Golabek’s repeated playing of portions of that concerto throughout the performance is a joy.) Her other musical choices include pieces by Bach, Beethoven, and Rachmaninoff.
Another fascinating aspect of the stage production is the appearance of at-first-empty frames on the screen behind the piano. But the production uses these large frames to display important family portraits and relevant film footage that enhance the story Golabek tells.
This inspiring performance is especially meaningful for music-lovers who agree with Golabek that music can bring light and hope to even the darkest of times. It is also illuminating for anyone who is moved by the story of the children who traveled on the Kindertransport, escaping the horrors of the Holocaust but nevertheless having their lives disrupted, separating them from their loving families, in many cases forever.
PLEASE NOTE: A special post-show forum featuring its star, Mona Golabek, along with Palo Alto resident Helga Newman (who also escaped the Nazis via the Kindertransport), will take place following the 2 pm matinee on Saturday, February 1.