Saturday, July 14, 2018

From the Desk of Jim R, Take 2, Column 81, A Review: "The Pianist of Willesden Lane" (Hartford Stage)

By James V. Ruocco

In "The Pianist of Willesden Lane," performer/musician Mona Golabek journeys back in time to tell the sensitive, personal, biographical story of her mother, Lisa Jura, a young, aspiring, classical pianist in Vienna, Austria, circa 1938. The story, which concludes in London, 1942, charts Jura's escape from the Nazi regime to finding asylum in Great Britain while her family was left behind.
Amidst piano concertos and ambitions, Nazi edicts and prejudice and the notorious Kristallnacht (the Night of Broken Glass) and its horrific aftermath, the actress assumes a variety of different roles and voices (her mother Lisa is the centerpiece of the narrative), with commanding intent and belief, backed by hauntingly evocative classical music pieces composed by Mozart, Chopin, Rachmaninoff, Grieg, Bach and Debussy, among others.

It is moving.
It is haunting.
It is alarming.
It is beautiful.
It is timely.
It is powerful.
It is ambitious.
It is passionate.
It is unforgettable.
It also makes you weep.

Many moments, of course, stand out.
As storyteller, Golabeck recounts her mother's pain and confusion after being told that her beloved piano instructor can no longer teach her music because he's been forbidden to instruct anyone of Jewish origin. There is the "children's  train," (Kindertransport) that moved thousands of youngsters to safety in England. There is the destruction of the Willesden Lane property during the Blitz and its eventual recovery. There is the allied invasion of England. There are also stories about her mother's father, her mother's siblings, her cousins, the group foster homes and hostels,  the bus rides and piano lessons, the cafes, the famous blue dress and audition that led to a scholarship at the Royal Academy of  Music, the financial relief that came from playing the piano at hotels during World War II and  making uniforms for the RAF plus assorted romances, woes and heartaches.

"Never stop playing," her mother Lisa told her just before she boarded the train in Vienna bound for London. "And I will be with you every step of the way."  It's a connection that the young Lisa  never ever forgot.

In reality, the actual conceit of staging a one-woman can be especially daunting and problematic, especially if the director is not up to the challenge of the material (in this case, Golabek's stirring book "The Children of Willesden Lane," co-authored with Lee Cohen), the specific staging blueprint and the mechanics of keeping the entire project afloat while using just one actor....and only one actor...for the play's allotted running time of 90 minutes. No interruptions. No pauses. No stop and go for freeze frame. Just one person, front and center, establishing complete trust and camaraderie between actor and audience that cannot be broken for a single second

Dangerous, yes.
Crazy, yes.
Daring, yes.
Lethal, yes.
But when done right, as is the case with "The Pianist of Willesden Lane," the effect is completely captivating and an absolute privilege to witness.

This production, adapted and directed by Hershey Felder, unfolds with extraordinary assurance, ambition and resonance. Nothing happens just to happen. Everything from Golabek's piano-accompanied journey into her mother's past and the extraordinarily personal dialogues and remembrances that follow, fascinates. As observer, Felder is creative, dynamic, crafty, appreciative and respectful. Moreover, he lets the subject matter breathe, build, take shape and unfold intuitively. And that, in a nutshell, is why this production works ever so well.

One actor. One play. No intermission. Simply amazing.
One of the greatest accomplishments under Felder's tutelage is the closeness he creates between actor and audience. Yes, we are in a theater. Yes, we are watching a play. Yes, we can see the faces of those seated around us on all different levels. Yes, we are watching a deft, very accomplished musician, performer and storyteller bare her heart and soul through memory. But with Felder orchestrating "The Pianist of Willesden Lane," one is made to feel and experience a voyeuristic intimacy and bond with Golabek where it feels as if she is talking only to us. No one else, just us.

To enhance the reality and power of the story, images are often projected in the background on four over-sized, gold-encrusted picture frames. Pinpoint-perfect film clips, special moody lighting cues and properly placed sound effects and orchestrations further that notion.

It's all pretty unique and fascinating, when you think about it.
That said, the actual environs of the Hartford Stage space, also heightens that experience wholeheartedly.
"It's like being in your living room, " Golabek tells us following the play's conclusion.

In terms of performance, it takes an extraordinary talent to hold the audience in the palm of her hand for 90 minutes and the equally astounding Mona Golabek does exactly just that. She is genuine. She is real. She is childlike. She is frightened. She is curious. She is brave. She is honest. She is affectionate. She is personable. She captures the voice of Lisa, her adolescent mother with effective imagination and purpose. And under Fedler's smart, inventive direction, she is completely focused and at ease no matter what the situation it, what the dialogue is, what the character is, what the music is or what the memory is.

At the piano, she is passionate, resourceful and uplifting. She is also self-giving and self-revealing, displaying superb concert pianist skills and qualities that are appropriate, distinguished, committed, sensuous and thrilling. She can shift gears with amazing aplomb. She gets lost in the very moment of it all. The love she shares for every classical piece she brings to life is astonishing. Watching her play piece after piece while shaping and molding her mother's personal journey is an actual feast for the eye of the beholder. She also knows exactly how to keep you riveted and spellbound, how to find humor in certain situations and how to reduce you to tears when talking about the war, the Holocaust, its survivors and uncertainty of someone's fate.

Music, of course, is everything in "The Pianist of Willesden Lane" and several classical selections stand out. They include Debussy's "Clair de Lune," Beethoven's "Moonlight Sonata," Grieg's "Piano Concerto in A Minor" and Rachmaninoff's "Prelude in C Minor." Performed with such style and grace, the music, the notes and the sounds become a vital character in Golabek's  narrative.
The audience is also privy to the sweet-sounding "Strike Up the Band" and "These Foolish Things."

 I simply cannot say enough.

A triumph for all involved, "The Pianist of Willesden Lane"  is a mesmerizing, unforgettable evening of theater. It is emotional. It is heartfelt. It is gratifying. It is thought-provoking. It connects with you one-on-one. It tugs at your heart strings. It gets you thinking about your own life and your own family. And, it reveals itself in ways that are both deeply affecting and meaningful.

At the center of it all is keyboard virtuoso Mona Golabek herself, a selfless, extraordinary individual who recounts her mother's tale of survival through music and storytelling in ways that linger long after the production has ended.  Bravo, Ms. Golabek. Bravo.

"The Pianist of Willesden Lane" is being presented at Hartford Stage (50 Church St., Hartford, CT), now through July 22.
For tickets or more information, call (860) 527-5151.

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