'Pianist of Willesden Lane' Gives Encore At Hartford Stage

In Connecticut, Mona Golabek has become a familiar face thanks to her one-woman show “The Pianist of Willesden Lane.” But that face really belongs to her mother.

Golabek dons a red wig to portray Lisa Jura, who escaped Nazi-occupied Austria in 1938 via the Kindertransport rescue mission. The tale is informed by Jura’s love for music, and Golabek — an acclaimed concert pianist — alternates the telling of her mother’s story with grand-piano performances of works by Beethoven, Chopin, Bach, Scriabin, Rachmaninoff and Grieg.

Golabek brings "The Pianist of Willesden Lane” back to Hartford Stage July 12 to 22 as a special summer event for the theater. The show was part of Hartford Stage’s regular season in the spring of 2015, running for a month. Golabek also performed it in April 2017 at the Westport Country Playhouse and will be returning to that theater for a three-week run in December.

2015 Review: 'Pianist Of Willesden Lane' Celebrates Power Of Music To Sustain »

“The Pianist of Willesden Lane” is the result of many of Golabek’s lifelong interests coming together into one project. She discussed her career and her continued success with the “The Pianist of Willesden Lane,” in a phone interview June 25, after having just visited the site of the Auschwitz concentration camp.

“There are no words” to describe the experience, she says, collecting herself so she could discuss her own family’s World War II experiences. The woman with a passion for storytelling knows when silent reflection is the stronger response.

“I was always a bit of a storyteller,” says Golabek. She has hosted the radio show “The Romantic Hours” since 1998. The program combines poetry and spoken-word passages with classical music. “The Pianist of Willesden Lane” has that same quality of using stories and historical context to deepen an appreciation of classical music.

Before she turned her mother’s story into a theater show, Golabek had been sharing her family history in classrooms and lecture halls. Fifteen years ago she turned the stories into a book, “The Children of Willesden Lane,” which she co-wrote with Lee Cohen. It has been reprinted several times and has also been adapted into a book for younger readers.

“When I wrote the book, I already had my educational mission in place. I went out as myself, as Mona, and told my mother’s story. People would say to me, ‘This would be amazing as a one-person show.”

But adapting Lisa Jura’s Kindertransport saga into a full-blown theater piece didn’t happen until nearly a decade ago, when Golabek says “I was brought to see Hershey Felder at the Geffen Playhouse [in Los Angeles]. He was performing his Beethoven.”

Felder, a classical pianist and actor, has created a hugely popular series of theatrical plays-with-music in which he has portrayed major composers of the 19th and 20th centuries. He’s brought several of these shows to Hartford Stage; his latest one, “Our Great Tchaikovsky,” was Hartford Stage’s summer theater event just last year.

Golabek loved how Felder combined monologues and musical performances in a theatrical manner. She saw similarities between his biographical portraits, which contain long musical passages from the composers under discussion, and the story of her mother, whose journey from Austria to England was underscored with her love for music and her desire to become a concert pianist.

“My mother told me during my piano lessons that each piece of music tells a story.”

Every piece of music in “The Pianist of Willesden Lane” relates directly to Lisa Jura’s life, her daughter says. “’Claire de Lune’ is what she heard when she was escaping from the Nazis. The Grieg piano concerto in A minor was what she always wanted to make her concert debut with.

“So I called Hershey Felder up,” Golabek continues, “and just said ‘Can I come and talk to you? I thought I would just tell him what I was doing. He brought me to the Geffen Playhouse and I did 30 minutes or so for him. Then he asked me if he could develop this into something bigger. I was shocked. He really took a chance on me.

“Hershey Felder really gave me a shot at this. He surrounded me with extraordinary artists and designers to create this old-world feeling on the stage. He told me to buy a red wig — my hair is blonde — and become my mother.

“He was the boss, and I was fine with that. Sometimes I would try to argue with him, and he did incorporate a few of my ideas along the way. But he really is a master of this particular form. What I bring to it is my passionate voice telling my story. It’s special that I am the daughter of this woman.”

Outside of the “Pianist of Willesden Lane” performances, Golabek continues to do educational projects based on her family history and on her original “The Children of Willesden Lane” book. “We hold city-wide readings of the book. We just did one in London with 9,000 students.” She was attempting to set up such a reading in Hartford, but says the effort stalled because of the school’s transition to a new superintendent.

“So everything started around 2000, with me telling the story and writing the book, but it really exploded around the prominence that the play has brought,” Golabek says. “I’ve been on the road with it for five years now. It’s opening at the Kennedy Center in September.”

Her attempts to tell her mother’s story, and share that story with audiences and students, is now the basis of a documentary “Mona/Lisa,” by Alex Rotaru. The film is still in progress, but a lengthy trailer for it is viewable online. It shows Golabek performing “The Pianist of Willesden Lane,” meeting with students in America and traveling in Europe.

Golabek discovered early that the story she’s telling, while unique to her family and deeply personal for herself, has universal qualities.

“When I meet people after the show, signing books in the lobby, they tell me ‘You’re telling my story.’ It’s a refugee story. We see an incredible crisis going on in the world with the refugee crisis. The reason why this story enters people’s hearts is that so many can relate. It’s about how a young girl’s life is saved by people in the country she’s been brought to. I call it man’s humanity to man”

“The Pianist of Willesden Lane” is also an inspirational story about following one’s dreams.

“My mother never gave up on her dreams to play piano,” Golabek says. “And I never gave up on my dream to tell her story.”

THE PIANIST OF WILLESDEN LANE: A Story of Music, Hope and Survival — adapted and directed by Hershey Felder, performed by Mona Golabek — runs July 12 to 22 at Hartford Stage, 50 Church St., Hartford. Performances are Tuesday at 7 p.m.; Wednesday at 2 and 7 p.m.; Thursday at 7 p.m.; Friday at 8 p.m.; Saturday at 2 and 8 p.m.; and Sunday at 2 p.m. Tickets are $25 to $90. 860-527-5151 and hartfordstage.org.

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