The Pianist of Willesden Lane, Berkeley

Written by Mona Golabek and Lee Cohen
Adapted and directed by Hershey Felder
Performed by Mona Golabek
Berkeley Repertory Theatre (Berkeley Rep), Berkeley, Calif.
Oct. 25, 2013 – Jan. 5, 2014

It’s a sad story with a happy ending and it’s all too true. That’s what makes it difficult to write about “The Pianist of Willesden Lane,” Mona Golabek’s musical memoir newly opened at Berkeley Rep. Adapted by Hershey Felder from Golabek’s book, “The Children of Willesden Lane,” written with Lee Cohen, the one-woman show tells the story of Golabek’s mother, Lisa Jura, a Viennese child prodigy who was sent away on the famed Kindertransport that saved nearly 10,000 children, mostly Jewish, from the Nazi terror. Like many of the transported children, young Lisa never saw her parents again. Distinguishing herself from the displaced horde, she ended up at the Royal Academy of Music in London and went on to a concert career.

Her daughter, also a gifted pianist, tells the tale, taking on the role of her late mother (who died in Los Angeles in 1997). And there lies the rub. While a talented musician, Golabek is no actress — although she does better when borrowing the voices of the various teachers, officials and friends in her mother’s life than as Lisa herself. The story is gripping, punctuated by performances of music by Grieg, Beethoven, Chopin, Debussy, Bach and others. But, as a play, it is not entirely successful. Or even entirely a play. And that makes it all the more complicated because one does not wish to appear to criticize a remarkable life, a daughter’s devotion or, heaven forbid, the horrors of the Holocaust.

To her credit, Golabek does the best with what she’s got to work with. The whole thing has a somewhat static quality as she tells her story, dressed in a rather unbecoming navy blue dress (by Jaclyn Maude), alternating between the piano and center stage. Director Hershey Felder, recently seen in his own one-man show “Gershwin Alone,” at Berkeley Rep, seems to have adopted the same format here. And, if you saw that show, the similarities are glaring and a little boring. Felder, with Trevor Hay, also designed the scene, Steinway at the center of a raised platform and enormous picture frames hanging on the back wall, eventually to be filled with everything from family portraits to bookshelves to cafe and street scenes. Plus the painfully familiar footage of the roundups and Kristallnacht, hard to look at and impossible to turn away from.

“The Pianist” tugs hard at the tear ducts, especially near the end, accompanied by the thundering finale of the Grieg A Minor Concerto, the piece with which Jura made her concert debut and which frames the entire story. You can’t help feeling a little manipulated. Both director Felder and performer Golabek are accomplished musicians. Perhaps it was a case of overextending to expect either one to be a one-man band.

Suzanne Weiss

San Francisco, CA
Suzanne Weiss has been writing about the arts for the past 35 years. Formerly Arts Editor for the papers of Pioneer Press in the northern Chicago suburban area, her work also has appeared in Stagebill and Crain’s Chicago Business, among other publications. Since moving to the Bay Area she has reviewed theater, opera, dance and the occasional film for the San Mateo Times, “J” and is a regular contributor to culturevulture. She is the author of “Glencoe, Queen of Suburbs.”