Wednesday, April 20, 2016

“The Pianist of Willesden Lane” wraps fear, pain, loss, and hope with music

Photo credit: Patrick Weishampel/
A grand piano and four huge gilded picture frames are the only props that Mona Golabek needed in order to tell the poignant, bittersweet but uplifting story of her mother’s flight from the stranglehold of Nazi-crazed Vienna to freedom in London and the solace that she found in music. Over the course of 90 minutes, Golabek delivered “The Pianist of Willesden Lane” with genuine, heartfelt emotion that connected immediately with the audience at Portland Center Stage on Friday evening (April 15). The production was directed by Hershey Felder, who adapted it for the stage from “The Children of Willesden Lane,” which was written by Golabek and Lee Cohen.

Being a classically trained pianist, Golabek interlaced her mother’s story with piano pieces that her mother had played. Stepping up to the Steinway Grand that was placed on a raised platform in the center of the stage and playing with authority, Golabek performed snippets of Debussy, Beethoven, Chopin, Rachmaninoff, Scriabin, Bach, and Grieg. Photographic images and historic film footage effectively underscored various points of the story, helping the story to move along at a steady pace. The story resonated even more, because of Golabek’s uncanny channeling of her mother and her ability to modulate her voice to portray various characters.

The story began in 1938 in Vienna, Austria where Golabek’s mother, Lisa Jura, lived with her parents and two sisters. While Vienna descended into the madness of Nazi-inspired control, 14-year-old Jura’s world revolved around her piano lessons and the dream of playing Grieg’s Piano Concerto in the Musikverein – the gilded concert hall that is the home of the Vienna Philharmonic. But Jura’s father, after losing most of his income because of the abusive laws against Jews, turned to gambling. On Kristallnacht, he returned home from an evening of gambling – beaten up but still in possession of a ticket that would allow one of his children to go on the Kindertransport to Great Britain. That ticket was given to Lisa.

After she got to London, Jura’s worries were not over, but she preserved, living with other children from the Kindertransport in home on Willesden Lane that is run by a stern Mrs. Cohen and working as a seamstress in a factory to make clothing for the British troops. She also kept playing the piano, and was at the keyboard when German bombs fell on her home. She miraculously survived the bombing and later qualified for a scholarship to study piano at the Royal Academy of Music. Her teachers found her a job playing in the lobby of a hotel that served as the temporary quarters for soldiers. It is there that she was introduced to a French officer who later became her husband after the war. And yes, as part of her graduation, Jura plays the Grieg Piano Concerto.

Golabek’s storytelling was riveting but it never became melodramatic – even when relating moments of extreme loss and pain. She terrifically evoked scenes of Vienna in those bygone years and of London during the war, including the music that her mother knew so well and clung to in a desperate way that helped her endure the chaos and loss.

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