If you ask me…

- Tom Holehan

Concert Memoir on Stage in Hartford


More memoir-on-stage or musical story theatre than actual drama, “The Pianist of Willesden Lane” is an unusual offering currently on the boards at Hartford Stage. Based on a true story, it can’t technically be described as a play in the strictest sense, but it is theatrical, immensely moving and, as a bonus, a treat for classical music lovers. You won’t be disappointed.

A one-woman, 90-minute performance played without intermission, “The Pianist of Willesden Lane” is based on the book “The Children of Willesden Lane” by Mona Golabek and Lee Cohen. Ms. Golabek is the narrator/star of this stage adaptation by Hershey Felder who also directs. The book was a tribute to Golabek’s mother, Lisa Jura, who is portrayed by Golabek in the play and who, like her mother, is a piano virtuoso. Jura’s story is a remarkable one. As a young Jewish musician born and raised in Vienna, she was separated at a young age from her family once the Nazis invaded. Lisa was sent to London during the Blitzkrieg as part of the famed Kindertransport, a rescue mission that placed thousands of Jewish children in foster homes throughout Great Britain.

No matter how many times we’ve heard Holocaust survivor stories, they still have the power to both provoke and inspire and “The Pianist of Willesden Lane” is no exception. Jura’s triumph over extreme adversity at such a young age is admirable and that she went on to raise the infinitely gifted Mona Golabek is a tribute to both artists. This is obviously a very personal undertaking for Golabek and her loving memoir is something we are privileged to witness.

As a dramatic stage production, however, the piece is not without problems. The music is a key component and the classics (including works by Liszt, Rachmaninoff, Grieg and Beethoven) as performed by Ms. Golabek are as perfectly played as one would hope. As an actress, though, Golabek is, well, a terrific pianist. This brings me back to the problem of reviewing her because this is such personal material it seems almost churlish to bring up mundane details like acting ability. But as she is actually playing a character (and some small supporting voices, too), more convincing acting would be a plus. So would some creative direction which, in Mr. Felder’s hands, is relatively perfunctory here with Golabek moving to her marks dutifully and predictably.

Still, I was honored to hear the Lisa Jura story and all that glorious music (augmented, at times, with orchestral enhancement by sound designer Eric Carstensen) is an added plus. The projections by Andrew Wilder and Greg Sowizdrzal bring back World War II Vienna and London in vivid detail and Christopher Rynne’s lighting is crisp and fluid. At curtain, the charming Ms. Golabek gave a heartfelt coda to her story that didn’t leave a dry eye in the house. She also informed us that, yes; she is actually playing the piano. As if there was any doubt!

“The Pianist of Willesden Lane” continues at Hartford Stage through April 26, 2015. For further information or ticket reservations call the box office at: 860.527.5151 or visit: www.hartfordstage.org.

Tom Holehan is one of the original founders of the Connecticut Critics Circle, a frequent contributor to WPKN Radio’s “State of the Arts” program and Artistic Director of Stratford’s Square One Theatre Company. He welcomes comments at: tholehan@yahoo.com. His reviews and other theatre information can be found on the Connecticut Critics Circle website: www.ctcritics.org.


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