ArtsEmerson’s ‘Pianist’ is elegant, enthralling

BOSTON — The notes come right from the heart, transferred from mother down to daughter over many year of instructions. The stories have also come down from mother to daughter, a constant source of inspiration.

The ArtsEmerson production of Mona Golabek’s “The Pianist of Willesden Lane,” now at the Liebergott Black Box Theatre in the Paramount Center, is an enthralling, entertaining and deeply moving portrait of a young woman reaching for her dreams to be a concert pianist against the backdrop of family separation, World War II and The Holocaust. It is based on Golabeck’s book “The Children of Willesden Lane” co-written with Lee Cohen.

Mona Golabek in "The Pianist of Willesden Lane." Photo: Michael Lamont

Mona Golabek in “The Pianist of Willesden Lane.” Photo: Michael Lamont

“Pianist” is a daughter’s determination to make her mother’s story — and that of her grandmother — into an inspirational work of art.

Golabek’s solo performance tells the story of her mother, Lisa Jura, a 14-year-old promising pianist who left the family home in Vienna in 1938 on the Kindertransport for the safety of London at the outset of World War II.

It was a heartbreaking decision her parents had to make — they had three daughters and only one ticket.

Golabek’s foundation is based on the words her grandmother Malka uttered to her mother at the Vienna train station. “Hold on to your music,” Malka told her, “It will be your best friend.”

Thus the name of the foundation Golabek eventually founded — the Hold on to Your Music Foundation.

When Lisa Jura arrived in London, the family with which she was to stay had no room. Jura eventually found a home at a hostel for 30 displaced Jewish children on Willesden Lane in London, where she was delighted to find a piano and the loving but stern guidance of Mrs. Cohen, the housemaster.

She survived bombings — including the temporary closing of the Willesden Lane home — land long hours at a garment factory; her love for the music sustained her and nourished her, and her music comforted the other displaced children in the hostel.

The moment when she wins a scholarship to the London Royal Academy of Music is a triumph of will and determination.

Lisa Jura was eventually reunited with her sisters at her triumphant debut concert at Albert Hall, but she never saw her mother and father again.

Golabek also has taken her grandmother’s advice and held onto the music. Golabek is now a successful author, recording artist, radio host and internationally acclaimed concert pianist.

All of the music played by Golabek during the 90-minute production is from memory, including excerpts from her beloved “Grieg Piano Concerto” Debussy’s “Clair de Lune,” and Beethoven’s “Moonlight Sonata,” to name just a few.

When she knew she wanted to solo stage production channeling her mother, she had the very good sense to enlist Hershey Felder as her collaborator and director. Felder adapted the book over a period of about two years working on the dramatic narrative, a few hours at a time.

Felder, of course, is the brilliant actor/musician/director and the star of several successful solo shows, including “George Gershwin Alone.”

“I’d say Hershey and I were in agreement on what should stay and what should go about 95 percent of the time,” said Golabek, a resident of Los Angeles, during a talk-back after a recent performance.

“Pianist” is elegantly presented. Scenic designers David A. Buess and Trevor Hay have arranged a series of gilt-edged frames behind Golabek‘s grand piano, which serve as screens for projections and videos that add much to the production; the projections were co-designed by Greg Sowizdrzal and Andrew Wilder.

Golabek’s foundation’s “seeks to expand awareness and understanding of the ethical implications of world events such as the Holocaust, and the power of the arts, especially music, to embolden the human spirit in the face of adversity.”
With “The Pianist of Willesden Lane,“ she and Felder have done just that.

ArtsEmerson and Hershey Felder present “The Pianist of Willesden Lane.” Directed and adapted by Felder from the book “The Children of Willesden Lane.” Through Dec. 16 at the Jackie Liebergott Black Box Theatre at the Paramount Center.