When teenage Lisa Jura left her home in Vienna, Austria, in 1938 and traveled, unaccompanied, to London, England, her mother told the budding concert pianist to "hold on to your music." It would be advice she would heed after leaving her parents and two sisters behind, amidst the horrors of the Holocaust and the Blitz, and that would carry her through her darkest days.
"The Pianist of Willesden Lane," TheatreWorks Silicon Valley's latest production, is Jura's story, told by her own daughter, pianist Mona Golabek, who also wrote the book "The Children of Willesden Lane," upon which the live performance is based.
In the 90-minute, one-woman show, Golabek embodies Jura, as well as many other memorable characters she meets along her journey as one of the more than 10,000 Jewish child refugees who fled from Nazi-occupied Europe thanks to an operation known as kindertransport ("children's trains"). Jura, whose parents were only able to secure one kindertransport ticket, chose her out of their three daughters in part because of her great musical talent, believing in London she'd be safe and able to continue her education. This proved more difficult than imagined, but in keeping her promise to her mother, Jura managed to hold on to her dreams despite great adversity, modeling remarkable resilience.
Jura's story is certainly a compelling one. It's not only, as Golabek said after opening night, a story of how music can provide light and hope in terrible times, but also about the importance of holding on to shared humanity in those times, as Jura did with those around her, including her fellow refugees, the British volunteers who took them in, and more. It's also a story of sacrifice, of parents' love for their children. It would be a powerful tale regardless, but the fact that it's true and that it's the protagonist's own daughter telling it makes it all the more touching to audiences. Anyone not moved by the bittersweet ending words must be made of stone.
"The Pianist of Willesden Lane" was adapted for the stage and directed by TheatreWorks favorite Hershey Felder and his influence comes through strong and clear. Just as Felder does in his own one-man shows, Golabek combines her spoken narrative with gorgeous piano playing, highlighting pieces of significance to her mother's life -- most importantly, Grieg's Piano Concerto in A Minor -- and using the music to underscore the emotional tone. The show's structure, style and even Golabek's manner of speaking resembles Felder's. And, like Felder, she does a wonderful job in blending music and heartfelt storytelling (I'm always especially impressed with how they can perform complicated piano parts with ease while talking to the audience).
Felder also designed the set (along with his frequent collaborator Trevor Hay) and it's simple but beautiful: Gilded picture frames on a black backdrop, into which are projected various images and videos, set the scenes and give an understated, old-world elegance.
With the added personal connection Golabek brings making it especially poignant, "The Pianist of Willesden Lane" certainly seems to have all the elements that have made Felder's productions so successful for TheatreWorks in the past. I'd be surprised if it wasn't another big hit for the company.
What: "The Pianist of Willesden Lane."
Where: Mountain View Center for the Performing Arts, 500 Castro St.
When: Through Feb. 16.
Info: TheatreWorks Silicon Valley.