Some stories deserve to be told over and over again. Lisa Jura's is one of them. Jura was a classically trained pianist who escaped Nazi Austria at the age of 14. Her daughter, Mona Golabek (also a concert pianist), preserved her mother's story in the 2003 memoir The Children of Willesden Lane. Actor/pianist Hershey Felder has now adapted that story into a one-woman show starring Golabek, The Pianist of Willesden Lane, which is making its New York debut at 59E59 Theaters. It's a captivating story of sacrifice, love, and war, set to the dramatic music that carried Lisa through the most destructive war in human history.
Lisa Jura is the daughter of a Jewish tailor in Vienna in the 1920s, a time when café society and classical music reigned supreme. A talented young pianist, Lisa dreams of joining this world by making her concert debut at the Vienna Musikverein. Yet as she reaches her 14th birthday, this urbane world takes on a distinct cruelty. Because she is Jewish, Lisa is no longer allowed to take piano lessons. Her father loses his business, leading him to turn to gambling. One day, he wins one ticket on the Kindertransport, a program to relocate Jewish children to the relative safety of England. While he has three daughters, he can only choose one. He chooses Lisa.
We follow Lisa on her journey to England, where she first works as a maid before winding up in a busy hostel on Willesden Lane, full of refugee children who become like a second family. The play encompasses the London Blitz, D-Day, and VE Day. Lisa plays piano throughout, sustaining herself on her music, while doing her part for the war effort working as a seamstress making army uniforms.
Golabek spends much of this 90-minute show seated at a beautiful black Steinway, playing the music her mother loved: There's Debussy's Clair de Lune, Chopin's Nocturne in B-Flat Major, and Beethoven's "Waldstein" Sonata, each gorgeously interpreted by Golabek, who tells us her mother's story as she plays. Her fingers gently glide across the ivory exhibiting a natural intuition for dynamic nuance.
Wearing a simple black skirt and top with sensible flats (costume design by her sister, Jaclyn Maduff), Golabek portrays every character with a stilted speech pattern that is not far off from her own, making her seem very much like the world's most musically gifted school librarian at story time. Considering that these are Mittel-European people of a certain generation, however, this stoicism works. Generally, people of the World War II generation weren't prone to emotional outbursts. Really, how could you be after witnessing such horrors? The text of the play speaks for itself, without any need for dramatic embellishment.
The real expressive power of this story lies in its soundtrack, expertly incorporated by adapter and director Hershey Felder, who is something of a master of this genre. Sound designer Erik Carstensen has perfectly engineered the moments that require an orchestral backing, making sure the canned music works seamlessly with Golabek's live performance.
Andrew Wilder and Greg Sowizdrzal's tasteful projections underscore key moments in the play and offer context for Lisa's individual story. As Golabek performs a chilling rendition of Rachmaninoff's Prelude in C-sharp Minor, film of the Normandy landing comes alive in the frames behind her. As we see each individual paratrooper leap out of a plane, we are reminded that Lisa's story is just one of millions of extraordinary tales to come out of this war.
It just so happens, however, that Lisa's story is a particularly romantic one, equal parts tragedy and triumph. It's an immigrant's story of perseverance over adversity that will leave you wanting more. Don't miss this one.