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TheatreWorks’ ‘The Pianist of Willesden Lane’: A one-woman musical celebration of humanity

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Mountain View Center for the Performing Arts: January 18 through February 16 2020

“I feel I need another day or two to simply process the excellence and the intensely personal story I’ve just been told,” confided the lady I had befriended at the post show reception at the Mountain View Center for the Performing Arts. I shared the sentiment. I am sure Mona Golabek, the triumphant star of the show, heard the applause that greeted her at the end of the opening night of “The Pianist of Willesden Lane.” What perhaps remained unseen were the intermittent streaks of tears and fits of laughter the audience felt through the performance.

By no means was this story a heavy, tense retelling of the horrors of the Holocaust. At the same time, the moments of endearing laughter provided by the lead took nothing away from the ferociously personal, heart-breaking story of a family torn apart.

I spoke to Golabek last week, ahead of the opening, and asked her about the one thing the audience should expect and take away from the show. She told me, “Above all else, this is a story of man’s humanity to man.” In the vast nightmarish vaults of historical accounts of the time and the countless works of art based on it, this story stands out. Resisting the usual template of talking about the unfathomable evil that manifested itself during war times, Golabek (playing her mother Lisa) tells a story of people who did good.

In “The Pianist of Willesden Lane,” Golabek brings her critically acclaimed, one-woman-powerhouse of a show that traces the astonishing journey undertaken by her mother, Lisa Jura, a young Jewish pianist. This true story delivered in a hybrid musical theater format (complete with projected archival footage) recounts Jura’s escape from Nazi-occupied Austria via the ‘kindertransport’ (Children’s Transport). The Holocaust Memorial Day Trust called it a “unique humanitarian rescue programme” which ran during World War II and carried approximately 10,000 children (mainly Jewish), from their homes in Germany and surrounding European states to Great Britain.

The story of Lisa Jura starts in 1938 in the beautiful streets of Vienna’s Jewish quarter and takes us through tough episodes where her piano teacher has to stop her lessons because he is forbidden from teaching a Jewish child. It continues to the moment where her father wins a place (a place for one) on the kindertransport and we witness the heart-wrenching choice where the parents have to pick one of their three daughters to send away to England while the Nazis take over Austria. Golabek channels her mother’s loneliness on the day her piano teacher shuts the lessons and leaves the stunned child in the living room on her own. Equally tough is to imagine 14-year-old Jura abandoned in London by her relatives when her parents dreamt of a new, safe and musical life for her. Meandering through the different episodes of Lisa’s life — some uplifting and some desperately sad — the story weaves its way through wartime destruction, separation and reunification with friends, all the while keeping Jura’s love of music as its North Star.

When asked to speak of her creative process, Golabek said that all an artist can do is “try to go inside one’s story and think of the character you are portraying and the privilege of sharing the story,” and then tell the story in a way that feels like “telling your story to your best friend.” That was exactly what the entirety of my experience was at the opening. I wish the audience also heard about how Golabek and her sister were taught piano by their mother, Jura — her mother used to roller-skate between two rooms, trying to teach her and her sister at the same time.

Golabek is not only an accomplished, Grammy-nominated musician and performer but also a tremendously inspiring human being with a gift that allows her to connect. Our interview started not with her telling me how much time she had for the conversation or any such logistical distractions, but instead with her enthusiastically inquiring where my accent was from. Such a start to the dialogue tells me she is more than your standard L.A.-dwelling celeb. She is deeply interested in people; in relationships, education and the power of storytelling. Her NGO, Hold On To Your Music Foundation, has brought her story to more than 10,000 young students in Africa and is now destined for further success with a recent deal with a major film studio (Working Title).

Her current collaboration with TheatreWorks and Hershey Felder (Director and Adapter) has been wildly successful since the premiere at the Geffen Playhouse. Showcasing Bach, Chopin and Beethoven, “The Pianist of Willesden Lane” is an appropriate attraction for the Tony Award winning theatre company TheatreWorks, which is celebrating its 50th Anniversary season.

On her recent tour to South Africa, Golabek performed for thousands of high school students. After one such performance, one girl shouted out from within the audience, “How do I hold on to my dreams if no one else believes in my dreams?” The whole auditorium was silent for minutes before Golabek answered, “You go into your heart and be true to your own dream and you fight for it.”

Sometimes, it is too huge and abstract to think of the vast numbers in tragedies. Sometimes to appreciate the massive scale of an event, one needs to explore individual stories, personal triumphs and intimate loss. And Mona Golabek has achieved just that. She admitted that “some people compare this story to the story of Anne Frank and in some ways it is. It is the story of a young girl with dreams too. Except that she survives. And not only that. That young girl’s daughter is now going around the world carrying the torch of her mother’s story.”

In “The Pianist of Willesden Lane,” TheatreWorks, Hershey Felder and Mona Golabek boldly test the format of theater, combining compelling storytelling with an impeccable musical performance, all the while delivering a polyphonic human message.

TheatreWorks Silicon Valley is also hosting a special post show forum with the artist, Mona Golabek, and Helga Newman (a real life kindertransport refugee!) following the 2 p.m. matinee on Saturday, Feb. 1.

Contact Anupriya Dwivedi at adwivedi ‘at’ stanford.edu.

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Anupriya is a Masters student at the Graduate School of Business at Stanford. Similar to her portfolio life, career and interests, her contributions to the Daily are also a motley combination of Arts & Life (Music, Culture and Theatre), Sports Photography and some News. Anupriya has moved to Stanford from Switzerland, where she was working as a strategy consultant. She has also been a feature writer for The Times of India, has published thought pieces on banking, culture and strategy and even won a National science fiction writing competition. Her writing wildly oscillates between the formality derived from her academic life (Neuroscience at the University of Oxford as a Commonwealth Scholar) and an irreverence from her culture soaked lifestyle in London and Zurich. When she's not attending theatre premieres in Palo Alto, or buried in GSB work, she also contributes to popular science journals or writes geeky policy memos.