Through the expression of music comes beauty, as well as diversity of thought and sensation, along with the spectrum of passion and pain inherent in the human experience. For Lisa Jura, musical expression proved not only an outlet, but in fact a beacon of stability in a firestorm of danger, uncertainty and mayhem. She possessed a gift that involved eighty-eight keys, nimble manual dexterity, and a heart as big as Eastern AND Western Europe. A target on her family’s back in the zeitgeist of the time period, she was miraculously sent to (relative) safety and asked never to take her gift for granted and to allow it to flourish and blossom whilst navigating through the absolute hardest of times.
The Pianist of Willesden Lane (A Musical Journey of Hope and Survival) reunites legendary director Hershey Felder with his hometown of Montreal, as he brings his adapted production (from the book The Children of Willesden Lane: Beyond the Kindertransport: A Memoir of Music, Love and Survival) – now in its seventh supremely successful year – to the Segal Centre after successful runs in New York, Chicago, Boston, Los Angeles, San Diego and London – as well as Poland, Austria, South Africa and Zimbabwe. Jura’s daughter, Best Actress nominee in Theatre Mona Golabek (who also co-wrote the book based on her mother’s experiences), stars in the stage production, uncannily both acting and expertly playing timeless classical music compositions on the Steinway piano while seated at the vaunted instrument that helped save her mother’s life some seventy-five years ago.
Golabek is a masterful tour-de-force, taught the piano by her mother and given the same gift her maternal parent was given in 1930s Vienna. She is simultaneously concert pianist and astute and talented storyteller. Her mother was her best friend, she reports, and Gobalek flawlessly shares the experience of growing up the daughter of a Holocaust survivor, but also the daughter of an awe-inspiring musician and performer. The apple clearly doesn’t fall far from the tree here.
Buoyed by backdrop screens onstage which depict the destiny-changing events that unfolded in pre-war Austria and the rising oppression of – and correspondingly increasing threat to – Europe’s Jewish population, Gobalek recounts her mother’s story in ingenious fashion. Shuttled out of Austria both as political tensions increased and while she was dreaming of her concert debut in the legendary Musikverein concert hall, Jura was uprooted when her parents had to choose only one of their three children to receive passage to proportional safety – offered via the Kindertransport (“Children’s Train”). She was told by her mother to “hold on to her music; it will be your best friend.” It proved to be that and more, and now her daughter is sharing this gift with enthralled audiences the world over.
The Segal Centre has again outdone itself, choosing this production to launch the 2019-2020 theatre season with panache, grace, style, class and an emotional heartstring tugger. And that doesn’t even encompass the enrapturing musical pieces to which theatergoers are treated. Gobalek seemingly effortlessly balances storytelling and music under the world class direction of Felder.
Gobalek herself has performed at the Hollywood Bowl, the Kennedy Center, and the Royal Festival Hall. Several documentaries have been made about her. The book The Children of Willesden Lane has been translated into eight languages at this point and is used as an educational resource in American schools.
The Pianist of Willesden Lane is an unforgettable journey through undying hope in the face of the most difficult kind of adversity and an uplifting voyage guided by purity of heart and indomitable spirit. Don’t miss Gobalek telling you her mother’s enduring story, at the Segal Centre until September 29th. Visit segalcentre.org for more information or call the box office at (514) 739-7944.