LA Review: 'The Pianist of Willesden Lane'

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Photo Source: Michael Lamont
The grueling, painfully lonely journey from Nazi-infiltrated Austria to England endured by 14-year-old musical prodigy Lisa Jura is only one of many stories of survival and of the unfathomable courage displayed by 10,000 Jewish children rescued by the Kindertransport. What makes "The Pianist of Willesden Lane" unique is that this solo show is based on the book "The Children of Willesden Lane," co-written by noted concert pianist Mona Golabek, who not only stars in director Hershey Felder's muscular stage adaptation but plays some gorgeous piano concertos. As if all this was not unusual enough, there's one more element that makes the production special: Golabek is Jura's daughter.

How lucky for Golabek to come to the attention of Felder, himself a concert pianist and classical composer internationally recognized for his one-person shows, appearing as George Gershwin, Leonard Bernstein, Chopin, and Beethoven. Golabek doesn't appear to be a trained actor, yet after the first two minutes or so it doesn't matter. Not only does she draw tears with her quietly straightforward, honest delivery of lines such as "I looked out, and the Vienna that I knew and the family that I loved were gone," she is fearless in taking on the personas and voices of music teachers, rescuers, and others who pushed Jura along the road to success. When she intermittently sits down at the piano and plays enduring compositions by Mozart, Chopin, and Bach, as well as her personal recurring theme, Grieg's passionate Piano Concerto, she elicits goose bumps.

Felder's touch is evident throughout, especially considering the enormous gilt picture frames overpowering David Buess and Trevor Hay's set and towering over Golabek's Steinway. Projections by Greg Sowizdrzal evoking Jura's soon-to-be-lost parents and idyllic life in Vienna before Kristallnacht are aided by Erik Carstensen's alternately serene and crescendoing sound design. One section, in which Golabek tenderly interprets a Debussy masterwork while newsreel footage plays of the Jews of Austria being shoved and prodded as they are rounded up by the Gestapo, is unforgettable. Another memorable passage comes as Jura is delivered by the heroes of the Bloomsbury House to her new London hostel on Willesden Lane. Noticing lilacs in bloom, she announces having the sudden thought that "everything is going to be all right."

"The Pianist of Willesden Lane" is a touching and reassuring reminder that the ageless magnificence of great art can stubbornly, resolutely overshadow man's inhumanity to man. It's a message told with exquisite beauty and breathtakingly simple benevolence by Golabek and Felder, two world-class talents who epitomize the concept of artistic collaboration trumping all obstacles.

Presented by the Geffen Playhouse and Hershey Felder at the Geffen Playhouse, 10886 Le Conte Ave., L.A. April 25–Sept. 15. Tue.–Fri., 8 p.m.; Sat., 3 and 8 p.m.; Sun., 2 and 7 p.m. (Additional performance Mon., May 21, 8 p.m.) (310) 208-5454 or