Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: San Jose/Silicon Valley

The Pianist of Willesden Lane
TheatreWorks Silicon Valley
Review by Eddie Reynolds

Also see Eddie's review of Taking Steps

Mona Golabek
Photo by Hershey Felder Presents
"The most important hour of my week is my piano lesson ... I always dress up for my piano lesson ... I have to look divine."

And with that, a fourteen-year-old girl who dreams someday of her concert debut at Vienna's famed Musikverein Concert Hall sits down at the Steinway to play her favorite piece, Grieg's "Piano Concerto in A Minor," Op. 16, fingers flying effortlessly across the keys. Only it is not really 1938 and this is not actually the young teen Lisa Jura who, after escaping Nazi Germany, will someday actually become a concert pianist. Who we see before us is Lisa's daughter, Mona Golabek—herself a Grammy Award winning concert pianist—who on the TheatreWorks Silicon Valley stage becomes her mother in order to tell in words and music a most remarkably inspiring and uplifting story about the darkest period of modern history, the Holocaust.

Lisa Jura's page-turning story as one of the thousands of Kindertransport children who were put on trains by brave parents in 1938 to seek English freedom was originally documented in "The Children of Willesden Lane," a book by her daughter Mona Golabek and Lee Cohen, now in its twenty-fourth printing and read by hundreds of thousands of students worldwide. In 2012, world-famous teller and performer of concert composers' stories, Hershey Felder, adapted the book using his renowned style of mixing compelling, first-person storytelling and symphony-hall-worthy piano concert playing to create The Pianist of Willesden Lane.

And who best to both tell this story and to play the pieces of Chopin, Bach, Beethoven, and of course Grieg than Lisa Jura's own daughter. Though she had never previously acted professionally, Mona Golabek too had taken to heart what her grandmother told Lisa as the frightened fourteen-year-old got on the train in Vienna, "Never stop playing the piano; hold onto your music." How could Mona not be the one to relate the same stories that Lisa Jura had told her as the two sat together at the piano as Mona grew up in what became the new homeland of her mother, the United States.

After taking venues like New York, Washington, D.C., and London by storm (including two sold-out runs at Berkeley Repertory Theatre in 2013 and 2015), Hershey Felder's The Pianist of Willesden Lane has arrived at TheatreWorks Silicon Valley as Mona Golabek helps celebrate both the triumph of her mother's remarkable life and the fiftieth year of this 2019 Tony Award-winning theatre company. From the opening night's thunderous and extended standing ovation at the end of the ninety-minute concert/play, it seems clear that the next few weeks are once again going to be nothing short of a must-see for Silicon Valley (and beyond) audiences.

With a voice and manner of a young girl in her mid-teens, Mona Golabek quickly convinces us that she is in fact that young, wide-eyed girl so in love with her music, her city of cafes and concert halls, and her family (parents and two sisters). We are in her full grasp as she relates the day Lisa is told by her revered piano teacher how he can no longer teach her, due to a new ordinance forbidding his giving lessons to Jewish children. ("I am so sorry; I am not a brave man.") We feel her sudden shock when she then notices for the first time the "ugly men with arm bands and rifles" in the street and then her subsequent horror of Kristallnacht, the night of broken glass and burning books and synagogues on November 9, 1938. When her father—who lost his job as a tailor due to Nazi restrictions—comes home announcing he has won in a card game one much-sought ticket for a child on the trains to England, we understand why her entire family chose her to be the one to escape. The young Lisa before us sits at the piano and mesmerizes us with Debussy's "Clair du Lune," just as she did her family that fateful night long ago when the little, frightened girl sat down at the piano to do the one thing she knew how to do after hearing her father's news—play the piano.

As we ride along with young Lisa on trains and boats, as we meet with her new faces with strange accents and customs, and as we hear of her brave ventures in a strange land where her only desires are to find a way to bring her family to safety and to find a piano to play, the Lisa before us alternates between her gripping vignettes told in spotlight center stage and her time at the grand Steinway behind her. Stories about working as a seamstress are punctuated by rapidly flowing notes that chase madly but beautifully after each other as they mimic her stitching uniforms for soldiers. Notes pound ferociously yet gloriously to counter the death and destruction in the skies above as we witness a young girl foregoing refuge in a nearby shelter during London's blitzkrieg in order to play a piano in her boardinghouse's basement. As she describes seeing wave after wave of planes flying overhead toward their D-Day rendezvous with French shores, a heart-stirring, thrilling Rachmaninoff fills the air while we also watch news clips of boats approaching under fire, paratroopers floating precariously in a darkened sky, and soldiers landing by the thousands—many never to return to England or their homelands.

As Hershey Felder is accustomed to do in his many award-winning, globally performed productions (including last year's world premiere at TheatreWorks of Hershey Felder: A Paris Love Story), vintage photographs and film clips play an important supporting role in the telling of The Pianist of Willesden Lane. Pictures of faces and places, vintage and often grainy films of once bustling streets or of scary nights of bombing, and even a film of a famed pianist (Dame Myra Hess of England) with whom our live performer plays simultaneously Bach's "Jesu, Joy of Our Desiring"—all become part of the evening's montage of both our modern world's and one particular person's histories.

The vision and execution of Hershey Felder's incredibly unique manner of storytelling comes to fruition through the combined genius of his own and Trevor Hay's scenic design, Andrew Wilder and Greg Sowizdrzal's projection design, Erik Carstensen's sound design, and Jason Bieber's lighting design. The result is a visual and auditory backdrop that allows the meticulously detailed memories of a brave girl and gifted musician to be related by her loving, proud, and equally talented daughter.

When I first saw The Pianist of Willesden Lane in 2013 in its extended run at Berkeley Rep, I—like everyone around me—was profoundly moved by this next-generation daughter recounting of a Holocaust survivor who was also a musical wonder. Seeing the same production in 2020 where few changes have seemingly been made, my experience now is quite different. What strikes me about this story today is the image of an entire country of thousands of ordinary people who opened their hearts and homes in 1938 to refugee children who were no longer safe in their homeland. How startling and unbelievable in 2013 it would have been to me that this story of 1938 would have the unsettling meaning it does for us today? How could I have guessed then that we now live in a country that is turning away by the thousands at its borders freedom-seeking children and their parents who too are facing homeland persecution?

For this and for so many other reasons linked to stellar storytelling and performance, Mona Golabek in Hershey Felder's The Pianist of Willesden Lane at TheatreWorks Silicon Valley is not to be missed—even for those like I who have already enjoyed the play/concert in the past.

The Pianist of Willesden Lane runs through February 16, 2020, at TheatreWorks Silicon Valley, Mountain View Center for the Performing Arts, 500 Castro Street, Mountain View CA. For tickets and information, please visit or call 650-463-1960, Monday - Friday 11 a.m. - 6 p.m. and Saturday - Sunday, Noon - 6 p.m.