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A CurtainUp Review
Pianist of Willesden Lane

My name is Mona Golabek, and I am a pianist.My teacher, Lisa Jura, was also a pianist. While I was born in Los Angeles, she was born in Vienna in 1924, when Vienna was a city of dreams.— Mona Golabek
Pianist of Willisden
Mona Golabek (Photo by Carol Rosegg)
Nine months before the outbreak of World War II, the United Kingdom took in nearly 10,000 children from Germany, Austria, Czechoslovakia, Poland and the Free City of Danzig, and placed them in foster homes, hostels, schools and farms. This rescue mission is known as the Kindertransport. One of these rescued children was the 14-year-old Lisa Jura, a musical prodigy whose story was recounted by her daughter, Mona Golabek, and Lee Cohen in the book The Children of Willesden Lane: Beyond the Kindertransport: A Memoir of Music, Love, and Survival.

The book was published in 2002. Ten years later, Hershey Felder adapted it into a one-woman show, The Pianist of Willesden Lane. The show premiered at the Geffen Playhouse in Los Angeles directed by Felder and featuring Golabek as her mother and garnered some favorable reviews. It's and is now at 59E59 Theaters.

In many ways Golabek is an obvious choice for the role of Lisa Jura. Besides being intimately involved with the story, she is an accomplished pianist in her own right, having been taught mostly by her mother. She has appeared in concert with major orchestras and conductors around the world, has won awards and hosts a classical music radio program, The Romantic Hours. The problem is she is not an actress.

As a result, the story of Jura's flight from Vienna, her arrival in the United Kingdom, the Blitz and her eventual acceptance into The Royal Academy of Music remains more narration than drama. While archival pictures are projected onto elaborate picture frames, Golabek tries to bring the story to life by playing the various characters in her mother's story: her parents, her friends, the different people who sheltered her. However, none of these characters are ever given any distinguishing personality. Even Jura is fairly generic.

Then, just when you're ready for a nice snooze, Golabek takes her seat at the Steinway grand that dominates the stage, and the theater is transformed into a paradise of deeply moving and exhilarating music. Aall too soon she goes back to her story. And you have to endure another episode in a depressingly familiar Holocaust story before you're rewarded with more virtuoso piano playing.

Golabek plays Grieg, Beethoven, Bach, Debussy, Chopin, Rachmaninoff and even a bit of jazz. She plays with great emotion and an accomplished technique. To say she's a great pianist is like saying Shakespeare really knew how to write or Rembrandt knew how to use a paint brush. It's a pity she spends so much time away from the piano.

In fact, Golabek would have created a far more effective tribute to her mother had she told the story in ten minutes at the beginning of the show and spent the rest of the evening playing the music her mother taught her so very well.

The Pianist of Willesden Lance
Adapted and directed by Hershey Felder
Featuring Mona Golabek
Scenic Design: Trevor Hay & Hershey Felder
Costume Design: Jaclyn Maduff
Lighting Design: Christopher Rynne
Sound Design: Erik Carstensen
Projection Design: Andrew Wilder & Greg Sowizdrzal
Running Time: 85 minutes
59E59, 59 East 59 Street, between Park and Madison,
From 7/11/14; opens 7/12/14; closing 8/24/14
Tuesday through Thursday at 7 PM; Friday at 8 PM; Saturday at 2 PM & 8 PM; Sunday at 3 PM & 7 PM
Tickets: $70 (212) 279-4200
Reviewed by Paulanne Simmons July 15, 2014
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