The Pianist of Willesden Lane
hits all the right keys
Musical one-woman show tells a captivating tale of survival during WWII
By Byron Toben
Achievement in life is oft a combination of talent, fortitude, chance and luck.
The interaction of these factors occurred to me upon viewing the wonderful one-woman show performed by concert pianist Mona Golabek. Entitled The Pianist of Willesden Lane, it recounts the story of her mother, Lisa Jura, herself a concert pianist.
It begins in Vienna, Austria, where Lisa lived with her Jewish parents and two siblings. As a teenager in the 1930s, she showed great promise as a child prodigy on the piano. Alas, then came 1938 and the rise of Nazism. Jews were forbidden to continue their studies and local Nazis welcomed the pending Anschluss of Hitler’s Germany.
Pressure by Jewish and Quaker groups led the British government to grant refuge to a limited number of Jewish children from Austria and various East European countries. Lisa’s parents were able to secure only one ticket on the famous Kindertransport trains. In a decision reminiscent of Sophie’s Choice, the parents selected Lisa to be the reluctant one to go.
Upon arrival in England, Lisa found that the assigned private home she was to stay in was full, but she managed to secure a bed in a hostel run by Quakers on a street called Willesden Lane. (Quakers, I remembered, were among those few in England sending foodstuffs to starving Irish during the “great hunger” 100 years earlier.)
Lisa formed friendships with other young refugees at the hostel, but had to leave when it was bombed out during the Nazi assault on England. With only enough money for a one-way ticket to London, she demonstrated chutzpah by approaching a British musical body and so impressing them that she was granted lodgings and the use of a piano.
Lisa eventually married a French resistance fighter and Mona was born. This play with music is punctuated by excerpts of the great composers – Grieg, Mozart, Beethoven (my own favourite), Bach, Schubert, Schumann, Scriabin, Chopin, Debussy, Rachmaninoff and Mahler.
…[The Children of Willesden Lane] came to the attention of Hershey Felder, who adapted it into this play and directed it. Mona proved adept at acting lessons to blend with her piano skills.
Mona went on to perform all over the world but found time to write, with Lee Cohen, her history in The Children of Willesden Lane, the hostel of which was, by the way, eventually rebuilt.
That book came to the attention of Hershey Felder, who adapted it into this play and directed it. Mona proved adept at acting lessons to blend with her piano skills. Mr Felder, (an alum of our own Dora Wasserman Yiddish Theatre), has appeared in over 5000 performances of his own self-created one-man shows. Be sure to read his bio in the program. Besides being a scholar in residence at Harvard, he is married to Kim Campbell, the first female Prime Minister of Canada.
The show has been performed in New York and Los Angeles and elsewhere, but has a special resonance in Montreal at the Segal Centre. Special thanks to Lisa Rubin and the gang there for managing to bring this special event here.
Ms Golabek has some of her books and DVDs available after each 90-minute performance.
The Pianist of Willesden Lane continues at the Segal Centre until September 29.
514 739-7944 or segalcentre.org
Images: courtesy of Hershey Felder Presents
Byron Toben, a past president of The Montreal Press Club, has been WestmountMag.ca’s theatre reviewer since July 2015. Previously, he wrote for since terminated web sites Rover Arts and Charlebois Post, print weekly The Downtowner and print monthly The Senior Times. He also is an expert consultant on U.S. work permits for Canadians.