BWW Review: Theater J's The Pianist of Willesden Lane at the Kennedy Center
In Theater J's production of The Pianist of Willesden Lane, based on the book, The Children of Willesden Lane, which was written by Mona Golabek and Lee Cohen, tells the story of Lisa Jura, a young inspiring Jewish musician who is sent away on the Kindertransport from her family in Vienna to London to escape the Nazi regime. While in England, Lisa waits for news from her family while still trying to pursue her passion for music. Grammy-nominated Mona Golabek portrays in her mother, Lisa, in his emotionally riveting tale. Theater J's production of The Pianist of Willesden Lane, adapted and directed by Hershey Felder, is a timeless piece of storytelling.
Mona Golabek plays the piano with such a vibrant energy. She channels emotion into the keys. During this production, Golabek's dialogue is interspersed with her playing as the songs pair with particular moments in Lisa's story. While all of the songs Golabek plays are well executed, one song, the "Greig Piano Concerto" stands out among the rest. The "Greig Piano Concerto" is a significant piece of music throughout The Pianist of Willesden Lane. It is a song which Lisa taught Mona to play, and it is the song which is chosen for Lisa's recital during the climax of the show. For anyone who has never heard this song before (myself included), it is quite the experience to see Mona Golabek play this with her unwavering intensity and passion.
While Golabek's piano playing is top notch (as expected), her storytelling and acting abilities match her musical talent. She embodies her mother's spirit even when she isn't behind the piano. Golabek doesn't just play her own mother. She also becomes the people who are central to Lisa's life during her time in Vienna, as well as, London. Golabek's run through of the cast of quirky characters at Peacock Manor is uproariously funny (especially the butler) and a bit of relief from the emotional intensity of the production. The production aspects also match Golabek's acting and musicality. The sound, designed by Erik Carstensen, creates atmosphere without taking away the focus from Golabek on stage. One of the most intense scenes includes a sound of an explosion during an air raid. The explosion sounds so real and adds layers of emotional complexity as Lisa continues to play her piano. The set, designed by Hershey Felder and Trevor Hay, features golden gilded picture frames elegantly staggered surround a piano. The set makes the piano the central focus without overpowering its significance. At times, visuals are projected into the picture frames. The projections, designed by Andrew Wilder and Greg Sowizdrzal with video direction by Lawrence Siefert, enhance the storytelling. Many of the projections range from Lisa's family photos to scenic photos. In addition to photos, video clips are also projected. The most powerful video clips show Jewish families being forced out of their homes.
The stories of the Holocaust and World War II are heavy topics, but they must be told. There are many moments in this production in which tissues are a necessity. Lisa's story is full of so many struggles, but the themes of hope and resilience shine out the darkness. With well-executed production aspects and a wonderfully talented storyteller, Mona Golabek, as its lead, Theater J's The Pianist of Willesden Lane is one story worth seeing and listening to.
Running time: 90 minutes with no intermission
The Pianist of Willesden Lane plays at the Kennedy Center - 2700 F St NW, Washington, DC - through September 30, 2018. For tickets call the box office at (202) 467-4600 or purchase them online.
Photo caption and credit: Mona Golabek in Theater J's The Pianist of Willesden Lane at The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts through September 30. Photo courtesy of Hershey Felder Presents.