By ALAN SMASON, WYES-TV Theatre Critic (“Steppin’ Out“)
Just before every performance of “The Pianist of Willesden Lane,” the one-woman play based on the book she wrote with Lee Cohen (“The Children of Willesden Lane”), Mona Golabek holds onto a Magen David that hangs from her necklace. As she grasps the golden artifact (which she never removes), she closes her eyes and thinks deeply about her journey and how best to honor that of her mother of blessed memory, Lisa Jura.
Like her mother and her mother’s mother before her, Golabek is a pianist of consummate skill and talent with a deep appreciation for classical music. In her show she plays works by Beethoven, Debussy, Bach and Chopin as background music that accompanies and amplifies the story of her mother’s life, first, as a little girl growing up in Vienna and, later, as one of 10,000 mostly Jewish children sent to Great Britain aboard the Kindertransport.
The centerpiece of the show is her interpretation of Edvard Grieg’s “Piano Concerto in A Minor,” the work her mother had studied as a child and dreamed of premiering one day as a finished concert pianist.
The Grieg concerto with its famous flourishing opening and thundering crescendos serves as an emotional device that connects the audience to the artist. She places her hands upon the keys and becomes the happy child who was Golabek’s mother, uncertain as to her future and her dream, but happily surrounded by the charm of old Vienna and her own embracing Jewish family. As the story continues and the concerto advances, we are drawn ever more into her descriptions of the people her mother knew, moving from the opening Allegro molto moderato passages into the difficult Adagio period when she is far away from her loved ones and living in a hostel in war-ravaged London. As the work continues to expand, we learn of her survival during the harrowing times and of her perseverance through her continual dedication to the classical music she loved. Finally, we are transported to the Allegro moderato molto e marcato passage, which concludes and closes in a satisfying crash with the orchestra.
Were she just a talented pianist, “The Pianist of Willesden Lane” would be a profound experience. Were she simply an actress of some note, the show would be captivating and endearing. Were she to just tell the story, we would be fascinated. But Golabek is all of these and more. On stage she is more than the sum of her parts. She is a musician, a thespian and a historian who creatively uses music, emotion and words to keep the rapt attention of her audience affixed on her performance for an hour and a half.
Rarely has the intersection of classical music, theatre and history ever been more skillfully assembled than this production overseen and directed by Hershey Felder and playing now through May 26 at Le Petit Theatre du Vieux Carré.
It is an emotional roller coaster which tugs at the heartstrings of audience members, impressing them with a deeply personal lesson of survival with dignity as the soundtrack of her mother’s life plays out accompanied to the music of Grieg’s concerto, Beethoven’s “Moonlight Sonata” and Debussy’s “Claire de Lune” to name but a few of the major selections from which she draws passages.
Golabek weaves the tale seamlessly as both a pianist and an actress. She moves away from the keyboard and delivers a riveting performance that is both polished and moving. She stands and tells some of her mother’s story. She sits back down again at the Steinway & Sons grand piano and continues to play. letting the music swell and her story soar.
Throughout this musical journey, she gives the audience a master class in stage performance as well. She takes on the sad persona of her piano instructor who can no longer teach her because of the law. She lowers her voice and stiffens as she relates how a Nazi despises her as a Jewess (“Schnell! Hurry it up!”) She relates the shame her father endures as she uses his words to describe his horrifying night during Kristallnacht, when the Nazis held, intimidated and humiliated him on his way home. She imitates her mother as a scared little girl and then her stern, yet determined grandmother at the train station, who has to let her go. And then as a cowering adolescent, we feel her fear of what will become of her in a land that is all-too foreign to her.
Whisked away to England, Golabek continues the story of her mother’s eventual arrival to London assuming the personality of the hostel owner, Mrs. Cohen, who is impressed with the girl’s talent. She lowers her voice and becomes a would-be suitor, one of her fellow Kindertransport members. She takes on the happy and hopeful voice of another girl, who is her mother’s companion as the two admire an unattainable fancy hat in a millinery boutique window.
The production accentuates Golabek’s moving performance with historic projections of photos and films, chosen to recreate the period and to reflect on her family members or favorite composers. Kept to a minimum, but effectively used are several orchestral passages Golabek and Felder use to enhance the accompaniment of her interpretation of the Grieg concerto. Occasionally, there are sound effects too as, for example, when she relates the night of a bombing at the hostel.
Golabek gives a fearless portrayal, impressing the audience with her own musical talent as she mimics her mother’s abilities as a pianist. Through her art on stage she recalls her mother’s bravery and courage as a displaced foreigner seeking redemption through her music. The audience first relives the frightening rise of anti-Semitism in her mother’s home in Vienna as the evening begins. Then, through the music of Grieg’s famous work, we depart on the train and attempt to reconcile a feeling of loss and displacement with one of hope and connectivity. Finally, we conclude both the concert performance and the metaphysical journey her mother takes as she rises above the world gone mad as the final notes drift off in the theatre space to a well-deserved standing ovation.
This is an experience that leaves one elevated and grateful. Though there are moments of terror and sadness that resonate within the experience of the Holocaust and the backdrop of World War II, there are also gentle reminders of the beauty of the world as we witness the flowering of an apprehensive adolescent into an assured young woman transformed by the power of music which transports us all with her.
It is easily understandable that this is a rare work of art, which can only be achieved by someone possessing the prowess of an extraordinary pianist and owning a magnificent gift of felicity for storytelling. Even then, due to its personal nature, “The Pianist of Willesden Lane” casts doubt that any other person could so eloquently tender such a moving work and express so rich a recital of some of the most beautiful music ever written.
Golabek does indeed honor her mother with every performance as she holds tight to her Magen David and we can all be thankful for this unique and heartfelt experience. Brava, Lisa! Brava, Mona! Bravissima!
“The Pianist of Willesden Lane” continues at Le Petit Theatre du Vieux Carré, 619 St. Peter St., in New Orleans through Sunday, May 26. The show runs 90 minutes without intermission with curtains at 7:30 p.m. on Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays. Sunday matinees are held at 3:00 p.m. For ticket information, call 504-522-2081 or click here.