Review: THE PIANIST OF WILLESDEN LANE Melds Music, Storytelling, and Inspiration, at Portland Center Stage

By: Apr. 13, 2016
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Chalk up another winner for Portland Center Stage this season -- THE PIANIST OF WILLESDEN LANE is one you don't want to miss! Mona Golabek's one-woman show about her own mother's escape from Nazi-controlled Austria on the Kindertransport is part-concert, part-storytelling, and all magic.

THE PIANIST OF WILLESDEN LANE tells the story of Lisa Jura (Ms. Golabek's mother), an aspiring concert pianist in Vienna. When Lisa was 14, the Nazis took control of the city, putting an end to life as Austria's Jewish population knew it, and to Lisa's piano lessons. In a gambling game one evening, Lisa's father managed to win one berth on the Kindertransport -- the effort that rescued thousands of Jewish children from the Holocaust by transporting them to Great Britain. Though Lisa had two sisters, the family chose her to go, sending her off in hopes that she would be able to continue her piano lessons and realize her dreams.

Lisa wound up in London at a hostel with dozens of other children (aka "the sardines"). Her music became a source of inspiration for all of them as they coped with being separated from their families and tried to make sense of what was going on in the world. Thanks to a scholarship, Lisa was able to pursue her dream of studying piano at the Royal Academy of Music.

Music played a central role in Lisa's life -- it probably saved her life -- and when she grew up, she taught her daughter, Mona, to play. Now, in THE PIANIST OF WILLESDEN LANE, Mona honors her mother by telling her story in the best way possible: through music (Ms. Golabek also wrote a children's book, The Children of Willesden Lane). And it's a great story -- inspirational and with a happy ending that reaffirms the power of music to keep us going through the toughest of times.

As a performer, Ms. Golabek is enchanting -- she brings her mother's life to life in a way that is touching and funny and so personal. As an audience member, you don't feel like you're sitting in a theatre with hundreds of other people, but rather like you're sitting in a living room listening to a fascinating woman tell the fascinating story of her life. She's also showing you pictures. The set is basically just a grand piano with four large picture frames on the wall above. In those frames are projected images -- of Lisa's family, the Kindertransport, the hostel, what London looked like during the bombings -- which illustrate the story and bring it all even closer.

Then Ms. Golabek sits down at the piano. She plays Bach, Beethoven, Schubert, Grieg, Chopin -- sometimes just snippets to underscore to a particular part of the story, sometimes a full piece -- and if you didn't believe that music could change the world before, you do now.

I loved this show. So did everyone I was with. If you get a chance, I highly recommend you see it.

THE PIANIST OF WILLESDEN LANE runs through May 1. Get your tickets here:

Photo credit: Patrick Weishampel/


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