Produced by: Hershey Felder
Adapted and directed by: Hershey Felder
Featuring: Mona Golabek
When: January 15-February 16, 2020
Where: Mountain View Center for Performing Arts, 500 Castro Street, Mountain View
Tickets: $30-$100. Visit https://theatreworks.org/201920-season/pianist-of-willesden-lane/ or call 650-463-1960
of Kristallnacht and Kindertransport
Vienna in 1938. A city of masters – Mozart, Beethoven, Mahler. 14-year old Lisa Jura is taking the tram to her weekly piano lesson across town. She has dressed especially nicely, as she always does. “I have to look divine,” she tells us, as she has dreams of being a concert pianist and is especially excited because today she will start learning Grieg’s piano concerto.
But today is different. At her teacher’s house she is questioned by a German soldier. “What are you doing here?” he barks. “I have come for my piano lesson,” Lisa replies. “Well be quick,” the soldier retorts.
But this time the lesson is different. Her professor is nervous and as she plays her pieces for him he says nothing, no praise, no instructions, no “play this part slower,” “that part quieter,” and at the end of the lesson Lisa finds out why. There will be no more lessons. The professor is not allowed to teach Jewish children anymore.
And so starts Mona Golabek’s story of her mother, Lisa Jura, “The Pianist of Willesden Lane,” based on Golabek’s book, “The Children of Willesden Lane,” co-authored with Lee Cohen and adapted and directed for the stage by Hershey Felder. This is a story of great humanity in the midst of the world’s greatest inhumanity, and the determination of a young girl to survive no matter what, and to “Hold on to your music.” For that is what Lisa’s mother tells her as she puts her on a train out of Vienna, and to safety in England.
During the horrors of Vienna’s Kristallnacht, when Jewish people and their families were terrorized by the Nazis, starting the Holocaust. Lisa’s father has won a ticket at a game of cards on one of the coveted Kindertransport, or “children’s trains.” But only one ticket, though there are three daughters. The family has decided that Lisa, with her musical talent, must be the one to escape.
Mona Golabek, like her mother, is an accomplished concert pianist and also a Grammy nominee, and she punctuates the story with some wonderfully played excerpts of Bach, Beethoven and Rachmaninoff. The stage, designed by Hershey Felder and Trevor Hay, is sparse, just a Steinway grand, some risers and some large picture frames in which the characters in the story – Lisa’s family – and illustrations of events, are projected. But that’s all this play needs. The story is the award-winner here.
Through Germany and on to The Hook of Holland, the Kindertransport takes Lisa and her fellow refugees, and then by boat to England, and relative safety. Paid for by Quakers and Christians in England, the Kindertransport saved more than 10,000 Jewish and other ethnic children. Lisa finds herself in London, but her father’s cousin who meets her is no longer able to take her in, and so she travels to Brighton, on the south coast. There she joins a number of other children at Peacock Manor, a lovely old house owned by “The Captain.” But although the house has a piano, Lisa is not allowed to play it, so instead runs her hands over the keys where the notes should be. She can stand it no longer, and after six months she leaves and gets back on the train to London.
And it is there, through the Kindertransport organizers at Bloomsbury House, that she is placed – for no more than a week mind you – with Mrs. Cohen at the house on Willesden Lane, North London.
Mrs. Cohen has more children in the house than she can handle, but Lisa is overjoyed when she spots a piano and immediately begins to play, mesmerizing all her fellow escapees. Although she is sent to work as a seamstress in the East End, sewing uniforms, she finds time to practice, though, sadly, without a teacher. She makes friends with Gina and Aaron and Johnny “King Kong,” and they manage to get the piano down into the basement when the German bombs come. Johnny reads her poetry at night to calm her through the bombing, and Aaron whistles the Grieg concerto for her. Through the Blitz Lisa plays on, and even survives a direct hit to the house which forces all the children to move to other homes. But before long the house is rebuilt, and Mrs. Cohen brings them all back together.
One day Mrs. Cohen sees an advertisement in The Evening Standard for auditions for the Royal Academy of Music. She thinks Lisa should try for it, and all the children pull together to be her teacher, testing her on her scales, intervals, composers. After three months the auditions arrive and she plays as well as she can. And three months later a letter arrives from the academy. She has passed the audition! Even better, because she has little money, the academy agrees to give her a scholarship. Mrs. Cohen brings out the cider and apple strudel, reserved only for very special occasions.
It was through the kindness of strangers – the Christians and the Quakers of the Kindertransport, the other children in the house, and Mrs. Cohen – that Lisa was able to live up to her mother’s advice to “Hold on to your music.” Her musical career was launched, and she married a French captain, Michel Golabek. After the war they moved to the United States, where Mona and her sister Renee were born.
Mona never forgot the stories her mother told her as she was teaching her the piano, and when it was her turn to play the Grieg piano concerto, with the Seattle Symphony, she remembered that it was the piece her mother’s friends would whistle for her, and she thought, “This is the piece that tells the story of her life.”
Golabek decided to write down all the stories she could remember, and so appeared the book “The Children of Willesden Lane,” which Hershey Felder then adapted for the stage.
Mona Golabek tells the story the way she plays the piano: sometimes deep and moody, other times light and cheerful. But always painting a picture of the times, leading us on her mother’s journey.
It’s a wonderful story told with feeling and heart, of a young girl holding on to her dream through the most dreadful and scary years of her life, the inhumanity of the Holocaust contrasting starkly with the humanity of Kindertransport organizers, Mrs. Cohen, and her fellow refugees who helped her reach her dream.