Grammy-Nominated Pianist Uses Music to Tell Mother’s Story of Escaping Nazis

Music tells a story.

That’s certainly the case with “The Pianist of Willesden Lane” featuring Grammy-nominated pianist Mona Golabek at the Hartford Stage.

The show is a poignant must-see production because it is more than a play. It is history and it is personal as Golabek plays her mother, Lisa Jura, who was one of the Jewish children sent by her family on the Kindertransport to from Austria to London to escape the Nazis and have a better life. Jura had a gift at playing the piano, so her parents risked parting from their daughter so she could have a chance at pursuing her dream of being a professional pianist.

It’s based on Golabek’s book, “The Children of Willesden Lane: Beyond the Kindertransport” A Memoir of Music, Love, and Survival,” which she co-wrote with Lee Cohen, telling the story of her mother and grandmother, Malka. Director Hershey Felder (George Gershwin Alone) adapted the story to the stage.

Mona Golabek plays her mother, Lisa Jura in "The Pianist of Willesden Lane" at the Hartford Stage and tells her story of escaping Nazi-riddled Vienna on the Kindertransport to pursue her dream of being a pianist. She also plays piano interludes throughout.  Credit: Hartford Stage

Mona Golabek plays her mother, Lisa Jura in “The Pianist of Willesden Lane” at the Hartford Stage and tells her story of escaping Nazi-riddled Vienna on the Kindertransport to pursue her dream of being a pianist. She also plays piano interludes throughout. Credit: Hartford Stage

“An expression of hope and the life-affirming power of music, The Pianist of Willesden Lane tells the true story of a young Jewish musician who was sent from Nazi-rulled Vienna to the relative safety of London during the Blitzkrieg,” the Hartford Stage said to describe the show.

While I appreciate classical music, contemporary music with words is usually what holds my attention the most, however, I found myself charmed and enthralled by the music as Golabek played the classics because it was a focal point in her mother’s story and accompanied the spoken words exquisitely. Even without words in the music, you could feel the emotion and find your own individual meaning in the songs.

The one-person production is intimate and feels more like Golabek sitting us down in her living room, as her mother, and telling us her story as if we were close friends with interludes of classical piano music. While it doesn’t have a plot, per se, or much action, I envisioned it through her words and the music and pictured where Jura was and what she experienced through the oral narrative.

Golabek impressively also voiced the different people that her mom encountered on her journey, which helped captivate the audience. When asked what it was like to play her mother and multiple characters, Golabek said it was hard to come up with a short description, but said it was definitely “wild.”

Visually, the set was simple but beautiful. A grand piano was, of course, the center piece on a platform with steps on either side leading to the floor and a wall backdrop with frames. The production made use of modern technology to project historic videos and photos/paintings into the pictures, changing to match the story throughout the play.

Golabek is a recording artist, radio host and concert pianist with international prestige. She founded the non-profit, Hold On To Your Music. In addition to being nominated for the Grammy Awards, she has been honored with the Avery Fisher Career Grant and the People’s Award of the International Chopin Competition. PBS has featured her in many television documentaries like More Than Music, which won the grand prize at the Houston Film Festival in 1985, and Concerto for Mona. Golabek has also played concerts at the Hollywood Bowl, The Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, Royal Festival Hall and internationally.

Her best-selling CD, Carnival of the Animals features the voices of Audrey Hepburn, Ted Danson, Lily Tomlin and other celebrities. Other recordings include Ravel’s Mother Goose featuring Salisbury, Connecticut resident and Academy Award-winning actress Meryl Streep and the Piano Trios of Arensky and Tchaikovsky.

Golabek signed autographs after the show and her book and CDs were available for purchase.

Trevor Hay and Felder make up the creative team behind the production, who also designed the set. Jaclyn Maduff designed the costumes, Christopher Rynne was the lighting designer, Erik Carstensen did the sound, Andrew Wilder and Greg Sowizdrzal were the projection designers and Cynthia Caywood served as dramaturg. Robinson & Cole LLP was the main sponsor for the production.

The show runs through April 26. Ticket prices start at $25. You can call the box office at 860-527-5151 for more information or visit www.hartfordstage.org.

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