"The Pianist of Willesden Lane" Is A Tribute to Mothers and a Musical Masterpiece

pianistReviewed by: Russell Goeltenbodt:

The Pianist of Willesden Lane tells the true story of classical pianist Lisa Jura by her daughter and author Mona Golabek. Mona Golabek, who is also an accomplished classical pianist tells her mother’s story that is set in London and Vienna in 1938 during the pre-WWII Nazi Blitzkrieg.  Mona Golabek through music and dialogue, beautifully tells this poignant, true story of her mother’s difficult life and her love for the piano and music. Mona’s transformation to her mother Lisa’s character and the other characters in this production create the story as the audience travels back to 1938 to witness Lisa Jura’s journey through her music to her survival from the Nazi occupation of Europe.

However, Mona’s extreme focus is on her musical talent throughout the performance. Her portrayal of the characters is merely to tell the story. As a young Jewish musician, Lisa dreams of crafting her talent to become an accomplished concert pianist. Lisa knows in order to succeed it will be a lot of hard work, many hours of practice, and the best teacher to assist her in accomplishing her goal. Unfortunately, Lisa’s dreams are crushed when the impending invasion of the Nazi regime closes all of the Jewish shops and businesses, and threatens anyone connected with teaching or doing business with Jewish families. This soon becomes true with Lisa’s beloved music teacher when he explains that he is unable to continue her lessons in fear for his and his family’s safety. Completely defeated, Lisa returns home to tell her mother of her disappointment and her fears that she will be unable to study piano and music. Lisa’s mother, also a classical pianist, tells Lisa she will work with her and teach Lisa to refine her musical ability. As the danger of the invasion continues, Lisa’s father’s tailor shop is closed and he resorts to gambling to support his family.ct-ae-0512-the-pianist3-jpg-20130510

While returning home, Lisa’s father is stopped by Nazi soldiers along with some other Jewish neighbors. They were ridiculed and stripped naked and forced to search the piled discarded clothes for their belongings. A stranger fights the father for his jacket, where Lisa’s father tells the stranger he can keep the jacket just give him the piece of paper that was in his pocket. After returning home beaten with ripped clothes, the father explains his distress holding the piece of paper. Lisa’s mother is angry and disappointed that the father would leave his family alone to gamble while putting himself and his family in harm’s way. The father explained that he had to do something to support his family since he could not return to his business. He then explains that the paper he has is a ticket for a Kindertransport that is used to shuttle one of his three children to a safer place that is London. The dilemma that Lisa’s mother and father faced was to choose between their three daughters of who should travel to London. Since there was only one ticket, only one daughter would be able to go to London to safety. After hearing Lisa play the piano, and knowing that she has a dream of being a concert pianist, the mother and father make the difficult choice that it should be Lisa. Lisa is given the ticket and takes the Kindertransport to London. Lisa was to stay with a cousin who lives in London. However, after arriving, she meets the cousin who tells her that he and his family were forced to move out of their spacious home into a one bedroom apartment where there would be no room for her.

Alone and abandoned, Lisa is taken to a country estate to stay and work as a seamstress. After the head servant catches her playing the piano, Lisa is reprimanded and told not to play the piano if she wants to stay. Lisa decides to return to London and is sent by an advocate to a hostel where other young refugees are staying. There, she finds comfort with those she is staying with. Unfortunately, she learns that the letters she is writing to her family, are returned. Therefore, she fears the worst that they are captured or dead. Lisa continues to live at the hostel and gets a job as a seamstress in London. Lisa finds a room at the hostel with a piano where she begins to play.

To the amazement of the others living there, they can’t believe her talent. After escaping an air raid, the hostel is destroyed where Lisa is then forced to move. The Hostel is rebuilt, and her friends encourage her to play where the head mistress of the hostel encourages Lisa to audition for The London Conservatory of Music. Lisa is accepted to the Conservatory and attends school. She is then encouraged by her piano teacher to quit her day job to play piano for soldiers at a bistro. There she makes money to support herself and is able to continue her musical training.

Lisa inevitably reaches her ultimate goal and performs her musical debut at the renowned Musikverein Concert Hall. The continuous quest in this performance is Lisa’s love for music and the piano, as well as her quest for excellence in playing it well and understanding the musical genius’of Chopin, Beethoven, Grieg, Wagner, and many others. Throughout the story Mona Golabek performs some of the world's most beloved piano music in her poignant tribute to her mother's life in wartime Europe. The story is intermingled with the beautiful music along with graphics projected in beautiful large picture frames set as a backdrop.

The projection design by Andrew Wilder and Greg Sowizdrzal; and Scenic design by David Buess and Trevor Hay are elegant and lovingly illustrate the beautiful compelling story that Mona Golabek is telling. The Pianist of Willesden Lane is adapted from the book “The Children of Willesden Lane” by Mona Golabek and Lee Cohen. The performance is directed and adapted by the incomparable Hershey Felder who just completed a successful run at the Royal George Theater portraying Civil War Dr. Charles Augustus Leale who was the 26 year old physician who treated President Abraham Lincoln after being shot. Hershey Felder, who is no stranger to Chicago audiences, was approached by Mona Golabek with this story and Hershey Felder jumped at the chance to bring it to the stage.

The Pianist of Willesden Lane is a touching story where Mona brings her mother’s heartwarming story to life. She succeeds by bringing her mother’s character and all of the characters to life. She manages to recreate the emotion without being overly dramatic. You can witness and feel Mona’s passion and love through her eyes and through the beautiful classical music that she plays. This is the music her mother loved so much and fought to survive for. Mona tells the audience her mother was her best friend. She tells the audience how her mother lovingly gave Mona and her sister Renee piano lessons. They both loved and cherished that time with her. Mona is now carrying out her grandparents and mother’s legacy through music and this wonderful performance.

The Pianist of Willesden Lane is a gift of love and a wonderful testament to Mona Golabek’s mother, Lisa Jura. It is a captivating, emotional story of hope. It is an inspiring experience of how powerful music is to help us survive through the darkest of times. I can’t think of a more perfect way to honor her mother on Mother’s Day. In fact, this loving production is a perfect Mother’s Day gift for any mother to honor all mothers. The Pianist of Willesden Lane is Highly Recommended. The Pianist of Willesden Lane is appearing through May 25, 2013 at the Royal George Theatre 1641 North Halsted Chicago 312-988-9000 or theroyalgeorgetheatre.com. For calendar information theatreinchicago.com