Tuesday, January 21, 2020

'The Pianist of Willesden Lane' illustrates the power of music

Pianist Mona Golabek tells the story of her mother, also a pianist. (Photo courtesy of Hershey Felder Presents)

In an engrossing blend of great music and sometimes harrowing narration presented by TheatreWorks Silicon Valley, concert pianist Mona Golabek relates the story of a young woman’s journey through the perils of World War II in “The Pianist of Willesden Lane.”

That woman was Lisa Jura, Golabek’s mother. Her story begins when Lisa was a 14-year-old, aspiring Jewish pianist in Vienna in 1938 as Nazi terrorism against Jews accelerated.

Her father managed to get her a ticket for the Kindertransport, which English people organized to take thousands of children from cities controlled by the Third Reich to the safety of homes in England.

After several places in England, Lisa wound up at the Willesden Lane hostel in London along with about two dozen other children. She worked in a sewing factory making military uniforms and entertained people at the hostel with her piano playing.

She didn’t know what had happened to her parents and two younger sisters in Vienna.

She survived the German bombing of London, including a direct hit on the hostel.

She eventually received a scholarship to London’s prestigious Royal Academy of Music and worked as a pianist entertaining soldiers on leave at a swank hotel, where she met her future husband.

While relating her mother’s story, Golabek intersperses it by playing piano works by such greats as Beethoven, Bach, Debussy, Chopin and others.

The story is unified by Jura’s love of Grieg’s challenging Piano Concerto in A minor. The first movement opens the story, the second comes in the middle and the third provides the dramatic climax.

Lee Cohen and Hershey Felder, the pianist whose one-man re-creations of composers like Bernstein, Chopin, Beethoven and others have been huge hits at TheatreWorks and elsewhere, adapted this work from Cohen and Golabek’s book, “The Children of Willesden Lane.”

Felder directs. Along with Trevor Hay, he also designed the set. Framed in gilt, it features a grand piano in front of four gilded picture frames where various photos and scenes are projected.

One of the most moving is newsreel footage of Nazi soldiers herding Jews toward the trains that would take them to concentration camps and likely death. The projections are by Andrew Wilder and Greg Sowizdrzal.

Lighting is by Jason Bieber, sound by Erik Carstensen. Golabek’s simple black dress is by Jaclyn Maduff.

The play has been seen throughout the country, including a well-received production at Berkeley Repertory Theatre in 2013.

Running about 90 minutes without intermission, it’s a truly memorable theatrical experience about the soul-lifting power of music as well as a cautionary tale about tyranny.

Ticket demand has been so great that TheatreWorks extended it one week, through Feb. 16, even before its Jan. 18 opening at the Mountain View Center for the Performing Arts, 500 Castro St., Mountain View.

For tickets and information, call (650) 463-1960 or visit www.theatreworks.org.