In her one-woman show The Pianist of Willesden Lane, piano virtuoso Mona Golabek chronicles her mother’s escape from the Holocaust. Photo:
In her one-woman show The Pianist of Willesden Lane, piano virtuoso Mona Golabek chronicles her mother’s escape from the Holocaust. Photo:

Noted concert pianist Mona Golabek’s enthralling one-woman play underscores the power of music and the significance of history. Based on her book (with Lee Cohen) of the same name, The Pianist of Willesden Lane reveals the experiences of Golabek’s mother, Lisa Jura, a Jewish piano virtuoso, who escaped from Nazi-controlled Vienna to London in 1938 when she was 14 years old.

Golabek recounts her own history, performs her mother’s role, and occasionally portrays others in the story. Lisa Jura’s survival story is poignant, yet uplifting. When combined with Golabek’s magnificent piano performance of beautiful music by some of the world’s best composers, including Debussy, Grieg, Bach, Beethoven, Chopin and Scriabin, the story takes on an intense and profound meaning.

Lisa Jura’s family was lucky enough to obtain one passage on the Kindertransport, the informal name of a series of rescues that brought almost 10,000 Jewish children to Great Britain from Nazi-controlled countries between 1938 and 1940. When Lisa’s planned Viennese concert debut of Grieg’s Piano Concerto in A Minor is prohibited by the Nazis, Lisa’s parents, in recognition of her talent and tenacity, chose her to escape, rather than her siblings.

Golabek’s description of her mother’s journey was almost identical to the account of a relative who was saved by the Kindertransport — the heartbreaking farewells, the identifying badges, the rough journey, the interminable wait at Liverpool station before being met, the hostels, the loneliness.

In The Pianist of Willesden Lane, piano virtuoso and author Mona Golabek transforms into her mother, Lisa Jura, to recount her inspirational story against the backdrop of the Holocaust. Photo:

We follow Lisa Jura’s life in a hostel in London, where she was determined to continue her piano career despite the London Blitzkrieg and the deprivations suffered by all Londoners during World War II. And although we recognize intellectually that Lisa must have survived, since her American daughter is relaying the story, we nevertheless are totally involved and apprehensive as Lisa’s account unfolds.

Mona Golabek is not a professional actor, yet she manages the storytelling skillfully. As an internationally acclaimed musician, Golabek has appeared at the Hollywood Bowl, the Kennedy Center and Royal Festival Hall. She is a Grammy nominee who has been the subject of several documentaries, including Concerto for Mona with conductor Zubin Mehta. Her musical abilities are readily apparent, as she brings talent, heart, technique and power to her playing, particularly the Beethoven, Grieg, Chopin and Scriabin pieces.

Hershey Felder, who performed “George Gershwin Alone” last season, returns to Berkeley Rep as adapter and director of this fascinating night of theater and music. Despite the vast differences in musical storytelling styles between The Pianist of Willesden Lane and George Gershwin Alone, Felder’s unique skill in creating musical storytelling is apparent.

In response to a friend who is ambivalent about seeing “another Jewish refugee story,” I say, don’t miss The Pianist of Willesden Lane. Its personal portrayal, poignancy and joy transcend the refugee genre, and it features some of the world’s finest piano music.

The Pianist of Willesden Lane is playing at Berkeley Rep through Dec. 8, 2013.

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Emily S. Mendel

Emily S. Mendel reviews Berkeley’s vibrant theater scene for Berkeleyside. As a native New Yorker (although an East Bay resident for most of her life), Emily grew up loving and studying theater, from...