Category Archive for: ‘Woody Weingarten’

Holocaust play is inspirational, haunting — and musical

In ““The Pianist of Willesden Lane,” Mona Golabek plays under a projected image of her parents, Lisa and Michel Golabek. Photo courtesy of

Woody’s Rating: ★★★★½ 

Watching dramas about the Holocaust has been low on my priority list for a long time.

That’s because I spent 23 years editing a Jewish newspaper in San Francisco and, as a byproduct, had almost daily contact with survivors, children of survivors and grandchildren with survivors.

Some of their stories were indelibly courageous.

Almost all were incredibly sad.

And tough to hear.

So I went to opening night of Berkeley Rep’s “The Pianist of Willesden Lane” with more than a little resistance, going mainly because my wife, a professional keyboard player herself, really craved to see it.

I’m glad she convinced me.Although it’s imperfect, the one-woman play is a truly important piece of theater, something I’d recommend to Jews and non-Jews, be they fans of classical music or not.

And I not-so-secretly wish every college and high school student could see it.

What happens onstage is direct enough.

Mona Golabek, a 54-year-old piano virtuoso, relates the true story of her prodigy mother’s escape to England via the Kindertransport, an often forgotten mission that rescued 10,000 unaccompanied European children from Nazi violence and oppression.

It’s a tale of Lisa Jura’s escape to a London hostel.

And her survival despite the Blitz.

And her optimism.

Behind the Steinway that Golabek plays with grace and power are four massive gilt frames into which are projected impressionistic stills and all-too-real newsreel films.

Included are black-and-white scenes of Holocaust victims (thankfully we’re spared shots of emaciated bodies being tossed into mass graves) and the dancing flames of Krystallnacht, the Night of Broken Glass in November 1938 when Nazis smashed Jewish-owned stores, buildings and synagogues in Germany and parts of Austria.They’re disquieting, to say the least.

Golabek, in dark red hair (she’s usually blonde) and nondescript black sweater and skirt, reconfigures her mother as a promising teenage pianist who escapes after her father wins a sole Kindertransport ticket in a card game.

It’s a painful scene reflective of the film “Sophie’s Choice” because her parents can save only one of three sisters.

She accompanies her verbal journey with pianistic snippets of Beethoven’s “Moonlight Sonata,” Debusssy’s “Clair de Lune,” Chopin’s “Nocturne in B-Flat Major, opus 9,” a few passages from Bach and Rachmaninoff, and even a ditty by Gershwin.But her best work comes on Grieg’s only concerto. At different times, she dips into each of the three movements, ending the show triumphantly with the third.

When Golabek talks early-on about the great composers, she does so in her mom’s youthful voice: “I can hear their music in the stones of these streets and the marble of these buildings.”

The play’s dialogue is sometimes poetic, often melodramatic, now and then banal — as when describing someone with “the softest soul in the world.”

But Hershey Felder, who masterfully performed “George Gershwin Alone” at the Rep this summer, directed the play after adapting it from “The Children of Willesden Lane,” a book by Golabek and Lee Cohen, and, in the process, seamlessly blended story and music.

He, along with Trevor Hay, also was responsible for the sparse but powerful scenic design for the 90-minute, intermission-less show. Andrew Wilder and Greg Sowizdrzal were behind the effective projections. And Erik Carstensen was spot-on regarding the sound design, which ranges from chirping birds to bombing raids.

Golabek, unfortunately, is not a polished actor.

Her impersonations of minor characters don’t ring with authenticity, and her body movements are typically a bit severe. One sequence in which she tries to emulate some folks she’s encountered is particularly awkward.

Still, the poignant, emotional and haunting storyline overcomes any defects.

There have been tons of stories about musicians and the Nazis, including “The Pianist,” an extraordinary film. But this one tends to be better than most.

It made me cry.And bemoan the fact that Holocaust deniers still exist.

It also convinced me Golabek has skillfully underscored a meaningful Jewish mantra, “Never forget!”

In an even broader sense, though, the play is a love story — Mona Golabek’s heartfelt tribute to her mother, to hope, and to music.

Clearly, it’s stirring. And inspirational.“The Pianist of Willesden Lane” plays at the Berkeley Repertory Theatre‘s Thrust Theatre, 2025 Addison St., Berkeley, through Jan. 5. Night performances, Tuesdays, Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays, 8 p.m.; Wednesdays and Sundays, 7 p.m. Matinees, Thursdays, Saturdays and Sundays, 2 p.m. Tickets: $14.50 to $89, subject to change, (510) 647-2949 or

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