Theatre Mirror Reviews-"The Pianist of Willesden Lane"

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note: entire contents copyright 2012 by Sheila Barth

”The Pianist of Willesden Lane”
Strikes an Emotional Chord

A Review By Sheila Barth

  It’s rare that a performer becomes so enmeshed in the character she’s portraying, she becomes that person’s living, breathing personification.

It’s even more rare that the audience, hypnotized by her stirring portrayal, becomes trapped in a time warp with her, catapulted back to a horrible time, and struck spellbound afterwards.

There’s nothing startling about Mona Golabek’s appearance, though. Dressed in a black, two-piece, short-sleeve knit dress, her copper hair coiffed straight, in a shoulder-length page-boy, the attractive concert pianist relives the story of her mother, pianist-author, Lisa Jura. 

A celebrated American concert pianist, Golabek teamed up with renowned Canadian pianist-writer-performer Hershey Felder, who wrote and performed superlative one-man biographies of Beethoven, Chopin, George Gershwin,  Leonard Bernstein, and others.

The also-famous Golabek is the recipient of prestigious awards, voice and creator of a syndicated radio program, and co-founder with her family of the nonprofit organization, Hold On To Your Music, (the title is a quote from her mother). She and co-writer Lee Cohen penned the award-winning book, “Children of Willesden Lane,” upon which this play is based. When her mother taught Golabek and her sister Renee to play piano, she fascinated her young daughters with stories of her painful childhood, tinged with optimism and hope.

After Felder heard Golabek’s story, he worked with her, adapted it, and encouraged her to present it to audiences globally. Luckily for us Bostonians, Golabek appears through Dec. 16 at the Paramount Center’s intimate, Jackie Liebergott Black Box Theatre.  David A. Buess and Trevor Hay’s elegant set, with its large gold frames and shiny black grand piano, along with J. Erik Carstensen’s musical and sound effects, create a concert-hall setting in this intimate venue. 

Music of the 1930s surrounds theatergoers as the play opens in Vienna, Austria, in 1938. Speaking directly to the audience, maintaining eye contact, Golabek traces her mother’s trek at 14 years old from her beloved city, her piano teacher, her adoring family, and brutal Nazi attacks on Jews. The shattering realization of terror, humiliation, murder, and her escape with the kindertransport train network established to save Jewish children by sending them to relatives or youth hostels in London, is jarring. Whisked away from everything and everyone she knows, young Lisa’s dream of becoming a great concert pianist and performing in Vienna’s prestigious music hall is shattered.

Golabek’s enactment and magnificent piano-playing are enhanced by projection designers Greg Sowizdrzal and Andrew Wilder’s large photos, video scenes, explosive sounds, recorded orchestral accompaniment. Sad faces, dehumanized crowd scenes, a sewing factory, terrifying air raids, Lisa’s bombed-out hostel in London, and the haunting portraits of Lisa’s parents and two sisters are riveting. 

As Golabek switches personalities, from her mother, grandfather and grandmother; the Viennese piano teacher; her British cousin who offered to take Lisa in, then reneged; other displaced youths; the hostel supervisor, who’s “more German than Jewish;” Lisa’s admiring soldier-turned-suitor; and others, Golabek’s facial and physical expressions bristle with dignity and restraint.

We rejoice, too, at Lisa’s triumph of winning a scholarship to the London Royal Academy of Music, landing a job, playing piano for soldiers and officers, meeting a special admirer, and reuniting with her sisters.   Lisa Jura’s enlightening story of hope and survival against insurmountable odds, and her message of how, during darkest times, music revives us, is uplifting. Don’t miss it.

BOX INFO: Boston premiere of one-act, one-woman, 90-minute multimedia musical biography, written, perfomed by Mona Golabek; directed,adapted by Hershey Felder, appearing through Dec. 16 at the Paramount Center’s Jackie Liebergott Black Box Theatre, 559 Washington St., Boston:Wednesday, Thursday, at 7:30 p.m.; Friday, 8 p.m.; Saturday, 2,8 p.m.;Sunday, 1,5 p.m. Recommended for 12 years old-up. Tickets, $25-$69. For tickets and more information, visit or call 617-824-8400.

"The Pianist of Willesden Lane" (till 18 November)
@ 180 The Riverway, BOSTON MA

THE THEATER MIRROR, New England's LIVE Theater Guide