BWW Reviews: Geffen Presents Breathtaking PIANIST OF WILLESDEN LANE


The Pianist of Willesden Lane
based on the book The Children of Willesden Lane by Mona Golabek and Lee Cohen
adapted & directed by Hershey Felder
The Audrey Skirball Kenis Theater at the Geffen Playhouse
through June 24

Many plays have been written about Europe in the throes of the Holocaust and its devastating effect on the Jews who lived not only in Germany, but in other German-speaking countries such as Austria and Vienna. The future of those children was severely limited or drastically cut short. Mona Golabek is the daughter of Lisa Jura, a consummate concert pianist who, unlike many, was given a ticket to freedom via the Kindertransport... she was offered the chance to make a difference and did, as told in The Pianist of Willesden Lane, now onstage in the Audrey Skirball Kenis Theatre backspace of the Geffen Playhouse. This is stunning theatre that will leave you emotionally breathless. Marvelously adapted and directed by Hershey Felder, Lisa Jura's story is a theatrical experience not to be missed.

What makes this piece so theatrically satisfying is first of all it has a true story told simply and in sections, whereby Golabek does not stand and spill monologue after monologue. Instead of rambling, she tells a little piece at a time, plays the piano - divinely - so the audience is doubly moved, no triply, because there are not only the images conveyed through the words and music but also those actual pictures projected on multiple screens behind, that as set pieces serve as fashionably elegant picture frames for Golabek's family members.  Greg Sowizdrzal is to be lauded for the visual projection design and Trevor Hay and David A. Buess for the set design.

Felder's adaptation is succinct yet detailed. We are allowed to experience every stop along the way of this incredible journey from Vienna at the first onset of Naziism to the elegant English countryside and on to the dingy London train station and cramped hostel where Jura and many other homeless children resided, meant to offer shelter for merely a brief time, but which served as home for many throughout the war years. It was torn apart during an air raid and eventually rebuilt. Jura, though her own tenacity, found her way without ever giving up on her music, which sustained her during the darkest hours and propelled her to greatness. Even in the factory where she worked as a seamstress - her father had been a tailor in Vienna - she created a musical tapestry as she sewed. She got into a scholarship program at the Royal Academy of Music, played evenings in a piano bar at London's Howard Hotel - where she met her future husband, Golabek's father. The difficult road to success is painted as just that, but with a heartfelt thank you from Jura at play's end lauding her parents for "saying goodbye".  How painful it was for her to leave them at such a young age and spend sleepless nights for years wondering what happened to them, but ... if she had been forced to remain in Vienna, she would perhaps never have found her triumph in the musical world. Jura obviously passed on her musical passion to her daughter.

Backed by Felder's unique directorial vision for her very personal yet universally beloved story, Golabek proves just how remarkable a pianist she really is playing great classical compositions by Claude Debussy and her beloved  Edvard Grieg. She has ample opportunity as well to develop some pretty strong acting chops. It is her mother's own story, perhaps told to her many times over as she grew to maturity, so it's a familiar one, one that she feels to the depths of her soul. She paints the long, hard journey as if it were her own and happening for the very first time... fresh, not without its torture and heartbreak, but always theatrically splendid.

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From This Author Don Grigware

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