Classical music is no stranger to multimedia performances–it’s common these days to not only hear a performance, but see it, as musicians collaborate with dancers, painters, actors, and artists of all stripes to create a unique experience for the audience. It’s also no stranger to the one-person show, with a history rich in one-man (or one-woman) comedy acts and biopic-type shows. Despite the existing precedent for such shows, though, it’s rare to find a serious player of classical music who expands outside of their niche. If a show calls for spoken lines, actors are brought in. If the show is a comedy act, it’s unlikely that the player-comedian makes appearances as strictly a concert artist. And although classical performances increasingly blur the lines between music and other art forms, it’s rare to find an artist who is willing to blur that line himself, since the crossover concert is a concept that is increasingly accepted in classical music–but the crossover artist is not.
In light of this attitude, pianist Mona Golabek’s decision to star in a one-woman show at Los Angeles’s Geffen Playhouse appears as what is must have been: a very risky one. The risk, though, was worth it for Golabek, since it enabled her to create a unique and moving tribute to her pianist mother, Lisa Jura. Golabek takes the stage alone in her show, “The Pianist of Willesden Lane.” In this production, which began last week and will run through June 24th, Golabek not only performs as a pianist but as an actress as well. Golabek’s show is a stage adaptation by Hershey Felder of her book, The Children of Willesden Lane: Beyond the Kindertransport: A Memoir of Music, Love, and Survival, written in collaboration with Lee Cohen and published in 2003. Felder, who is perhaps one of the only concert pianists to have set a precedent for this kind of production, has appeared in one-man shows as Beethoven, Gershwin, Berstein, and Chopin–making him the perfect choice to direct Golabek’s new show.
The subject matter is deeply personal for Golabek, but her mother’s story is an extraordinary one, and Golabek shares it with great passion, which carries her through uncharted territory as an actress. Golbek’s mother, Lisa Jura, the eponymous pianist of Willesden Lane, was a fourteen-year-old piano student when the Nazi occupation resulted in her piano teacher sending her away out of reluctance to teach a Jew. Jura was one of 10,000 children rescued from the Nazi occupation as a passenger on the Kindertransport, and she was the only one of her siblings to have been allowed the opportunity, a choice her parents made in light of her musical talent. From that point on, it is her dream of becoming a concert pianist that sustained her through the Nazi occupation, the war, and the atrocities that were entailed upon all of Europe.
Golabek’s show seamlessly combines her own gifts of piano playing with a foray into acting, as she takes on the persona of every character in her mother’s story, from her teacher to Nazi soldiers to her own parents. Golabek’s playing and acting is augmented by an elaborate living-scrapbook of a set, complete with projections, sound effects, and orchestral interludes:
As the story progresses, those frames became filled with wonderful projections to show a grand Vienna, Lisa’s family, the train station and images of children from the Kindertransport. We saw the Nazi soldiers taking over, the lush Peacock Manor Castle Lisa was first taken to, Willesden Lane, and scenes from the liberation. Greg Sowizdrzal’s projections helped create the reality immensely. he dynamic sound effects by Erik Carstensen added to these dramatic images as we heard the chatter of children, the clink of cutlery at dinners, sounds from the Shabos eve, the trains pulling out, and the chilling bomb sounds of Kristalnacht.
To link these episodes together, Golabek performs pieces that help spin a narrative, and the result is what the Examiner calls “sublime.” Golabek has taken a big artistic risk here, and it has paid off, for it is not only well-received in Los Angeles, it celebrates the life of her mother and the ultimate fruition of her mother’s dearest dream: to have a daughter to carry on the family’s musical tradition. Golabek, the third generation of her family’s women to become a concert pianist, has cited her mother as her greatest musical influence and inspiration, and this unique, boundary-breaking production is a good reason to step outside the comfort of the familiar performance role.