Pat Launer, Center Stage on KSDS JAZZ88
September 12, 2014
For Lisa Jura, music was survival. She lived for the piano. So did her mother and grandmother. And later, her daughter.
It was Lisa’s piano playing that made her parents choose her, not her sister, when there was only one ticket on the Kindertransport , the children’s train that took 10,000 young people, mostly Jewish, from their Nazi-threatened homes to safety in England.
Lisa was 14 when she left her family in Vienna. The uncle who was supposed to take her in could no longer accommodate her. How this talented, plucky, outspoken girl made her way from homeless refugee to concert pianist is the riveting story of “The Pianist of Willesden Lane.”
The tale is told by Mona Golabek , an exquisite concert pianist in her own right. It also happens to be the story of her mother’s life.
Writer/actor/producer/director Hershey Felder adapted and directed the play, based on Golabek’s 2007 book, “The Children of Willesden Lane,” written with Lee Cohen.
Golabek effortlessly inhabits multiple characters with a range of accents. The piano is a major character, too — because it played such a large role in her life. As she punctuates her narrative with her magnificent piano mastery, we are transported back to 1938: the beginning of the German encroachment, the horror of Kristallnacht, the London blitz.
Suggestive of Viennese opulence, the set is an array of ornate gilt frames, often filled with illustrative photos and archival newsreels. And there are haunting pictures of Golabek’s family. Sometimes, the projections are distracting. But mostly, they underscore the sense of time and place.
To tell this deeply personal story is gut-wrenching challenge enough. To do it while playing concert-level classical piano, from Beethoven’s “Moonlight Sonata” to the demanding Grieg piano concerto that was Lisa’s dream for her concert debut, is heart-stopping.
In this virtuoso performance, Golabek gracefully convinces us that music is humanity, healing and hope… and the key to one girl’s triumphant path through a terrible, terrifying time.
“The Pianist of Willesden Lane” runs through September 28 at the San Diego Repertory Theatre in Horton Plaza.
©2014 PAT LAUNER