Monthly Archive for: ‘November, 2013’

Unforgettable story told in ‘Pianist of Willesden Lane’

By Judy Richter

Music is the international language, and it speaks most eloquently in “The Pianist of Willesden Lane,” presented by Berkeley Repertory Theatre.

This 90-minute, one-woman music-drama features concert pianist Mona Golabek as her mother, Lisa Jura, a young Austrian pianist who survived the horrors of World War II, thanks to her musical talent as well as her courage and grit. Jura went on to become a concert pianist and to give piano lessons to her two daughters in theUnited States.

In partnership with Lee Cohen, Golabek told her mother’s remarkable story in a book, “The Children of Willesden Lane.” In turn, it was adapted as a play by Hershey Felder, who also directs. BRT audiences will recall Felder’s recent memorable performance in his own one-man show, “George Gershwin Alone.”

The story begins inViennain 1938 when Lisa learned that her piano teacher could no longer teach the 14-year-old Jewish girl because the Nazis had forbidden such interactions. With the Nazis becoming ever more menacing against Jews, Lisa’s father secured the document necessary to send one of his three daughters to relative safety inEngland in 1940. Lisa was chosen to take part in Kindertransport, an operation that rescued thousands of children, most of them Jewish, and sent them from the Continent to foster families, hostels, group homes or farms throughout England.

Lisa was sent to an estate outside of London, but when she was told that the piano there was only for show, not for making music, she ran away to London. There she wound up in a Willesden Lane hostel that was home to more than two dozen children. She was put to work in a factory sewing military uniforms, but she continued to play piano, enchanting her friends and the staff at the hostel. All the while, she had no idea what had happened to her parents and sisters back inVienna.

The tale goes on to relate how she survived the Blitzkrieg, including a direct hit on the hostel, managed to find another piano teacher and eventually had a chance to audition for a scholarship at London’s Royal Academy of Music. She also got a job playing for soldiers on leave in a swank hotel, where she met her future husband.

As Golabek relates her mother’s story, she intersperses it with virtuoso playing of musical greats like Beethoven, Debussy, Chopin, Bach and others. The unifying work is Grieg’s challenging Piano Concerto in A minor, with the first movement opening the performance, the second movement coming in the middle and the third movement providing the dramatic climax.

Her narrative is illustrated by photos and newsreel clips assembled by Andrew Wilder and Greg Sowizdrzal and projected onto the four gilded picture frames suspended over the set designed by Felder and Trevor Hay. Lighting by Christopher Rynne and sound by Erik Carstensen add to the drama. Golabek’s simple black dress is by Jaclyn Maduff.

Several excellent articles in the program provide relevant information about the events surrounding World War II.

Although Golabek is a musician first and an actress second, her story is so compelling and moving and her performance so brilliant that one is quickly captivated. It’s a truly unforgettable theatrical experience.

“The Pianist of Willesden Lane” will continue through Dec. 8 at Berkeley Repertory Theatre’s Thrust Stage, 2025 Addison St., Berkeley. For tickets and information, call (510) 647-2949 or visit


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