A Storyteller at the Steinway

Mona Golabek delivers a tour de force performance in Theater J’s musical memoir, ‘The Pianist of Willesden Lane,’ now in its final week at the Kennedy Center.

If you hear shouts of “bravo” at the Kennedy Center this week, there’s a good chance they’re not coming from the Opera House.

That’s because the sound is probably emanating from a different part of the Center, namely the Family Theater, where Theater J’s much-acclaimed production of The Pianist of Willesden Lane is nearing the end of its painfully short DC debut.

The play, which opened just 10 days ago (click here for last week’s rave review), is the story of a great concert pianist, Lisa Jura, who escaped from Vienna after Kristallnacht in 1938.

Lisa, who was just 14, got out because her parents were able to get her a seat on the Kindertransport—the evacuation of Jewish children from Nazi-occupied Europe—which then delivered her into the arms of a welcoming British public.

Mona Golabek in The Pianist of Willesden Lane. Photo courtesy of Hershey Felder Presents.
Mona Golabek in The Pianist of Willesden Lane. Photo courtesy of Hershey Felder Presents.

Presiding over this one-woman show is Mona Golabek, the daughter of Lisa Jura, who just happens to be a concert pianist as well. (Of course, it helps that Mona is also a fine actor, storyteller, mimic and music teacher).

The show is adapted from Mona’s best-selling biography of her mother, The Children of Willesden Lane: Beyond the Kindertransport (written with Lee Cohen and first published in 2002). In the book, she points out that Lisa—who had been a child prodigy in Vienna, planning her debut at the leading concert hall—had the good luck to land at 243 Willesden Lane.

It was a modest house in the north of London, where a benevolent Brit named Mrs. Cohen looked after 32 children in such close quarters that she referred to them as her “sardines.” With all the crowding, there was room for a fine piano, and Lisa practiced every day.

The show—which strikes not one, but many chords—is a marvelous evocation of the terror of war, the resilience of young people and the power of words and music intertwined.  

I spoke to Mona Golabek shortly before the show opened. “It’s like a jigsaw puzzle,” I said. “Who put the pieces together?”

Hershey Felder,” she replied, naming the well-known pianist, playwright, composer, producer, and director. “Hershey is brilliant. He’s made an art form of combining storytelling with music,” she added, explaining that he literally created the show by adapting it from her book, pairing the music and words and then directing every aspect of the production.

Mona Golabek in The Pianist of Willesden Lane. Photo courtesy of Hershey Felder Presents.
Mona Golabek in The Pianist of Willesden Lane. Photo courtesy of Hershey Felder Presents.

The star of half a dozen shows featuring the words and music of Gershwin, Bernstein, Beethoven and others, Hershey’s newest show, Hershey Felder on Irving Berlin, is playing now in New York.

Mona met Hershey in 2010 when a colleague took her to see one of his shows at the Geffen Playhouse in Los Angeles. Impressed, she called the pianist-actor-writer the next day and asked him for advice. He responded by asking her to come to his studio and perform. She did.

To her astonishment, he immediately took her under his wing, introducing her to a whole new world.  

The Pianist of Willesden Lane had its world premiere two years later and has since gone on to sold-out performances in cities around the world. (It took six years, and Theater J, to bring it to Washington, DC).

Back in 2010, and for about a decade before that, Mona—a long-time champion of classical music—had been the creator and host of a radio program on which she played the music of the great 19th century composers and read aloud from diaries, letters, and poems that shed light on the secrets of these musical heroes.

The show was syndicated by the WFMT Radio Network to about 90 stations, including many public radio outlets in cities around the world. (I listened to it on WQXR-FM in New York).

“The music in The Pianist will be familiar to anyone who has ever taken piano lessons,” Mona explained. “Unfortunately, there is a dwindling audience for classical music. I think that’s because kids are accustomed to having music accompanied by lyrics. So we’re giving them a story to go with the music.”

She chose each piece—the Grieg Piano Concerto, the Chopin and Beethoven sonatas, the Debussy—to tell a different part of the story. And one can almost hear the bombs falling in the thundering chords as well as the whispers of adolescent love in the gentle notes of a Bach partita.

“Kids all over the world are inspired by this story,” she said. She urges theater-goers to bring their children, 11 and older, to the show.

“This play is not about the Holocaust,” she said. “It’s about refugees. And it’s specifically about those refugees”—all unaccompanied minors—”who were rescued by the Kindertransport and settled in London. In a way, this show is my ‘thank you note’ to the British people.”   

I spoke to Theater J’s Artistic Director Adam Immerwahr on Yom Kippur—the Jewish Day of Atonement—at Temple Sinai, where he was taking part in a panel discussion on theater today.   

He agreed completely with Mona’s assessment.

“As plays about the ‘Shoah’ go, this show is really hopeful.  It’s about welcoming the strangers at your door, and saying, ‘we will let you in, and we will help you.’ It’s about immigration, and what it means to people who are oppressed.”

When I asked why he chose The Pianist of Willesden Lane to open the 2018-19 season at Theater J, he laughed. It was a no-brainer, he implied.

“The venue dictated the choice,” he said. “We knew we were going to be at the Kennedy Center this month, so we wanted something worthy of a great concert hall. A concert pianist fit the bill.”  

And why the Kennedy Center?

The answer is simple. Theater J is temporarily homeless, due to the renovation of its longtime sponsor, the 92-year-old Edlavitch DC Jewish Community Center. Performances for the rest of the season will be at Arena Stage, GALA Hispanic Theatre and Georgetown University’s Davis Performing Arts Center.

Running Time: 90 minutes, with no intermission.

The Pianist of Willesden Lane plays through September 30, 2018, at the Kennedy Center – 2700 F Street NW, in Washington, DC. For tickets, call 202-467-4600, or purchase them online.

A postscript:
I spoke to Mona Golabek right after the wedding of her niece, Sarah Golabek Goldman, to Dr. Michael Goldstein. Sarah, who is a lawyer at Williams Connolly, is now carrying the torch, keeping the memory of Lisa Jura, her parents and grandparents, alive.

In 2007, Sarah, then a 19-year-old sophomore at Stanford, traveled to Poland in search of her great-great-grandparents. She subsequently produced a documentary called Finding Leah Tickotsky—about discovering her great-great-grandmother’s grave—which was aired on Bialystok TV and is now available from the National Center for Jewish Film.

Lisa Jura’s parents—Malka, a pianist who taught her daughter to play, and Abraham, who risked his life to get the seat on the Kindertransport—died at Auschwitz. 

Like Lisa Jura, Dr. Ruth Westheimerwhose story, Becoming Dr. Ruth, was produced at Theater J earlier this yearwas also saved because of the Kindertransport. Read my interview with Dr. Ruth here.