Review: “The Pianist of Willesden Lane”

RECOMMENDED

Where: The Royal George Theatre, 1641 N. Halsted St.
When: through May 25
Tickets: $45-$49
Phone: 312-988-9000

Hershey Felder has carved out a niche and gained a loyal local following with his dramatized musical biographies of famous composers ranging from Beethoven to Bernstein.

Now he’s taking his passion for music and its power to shape people’s lives in new directions, and his latest foray is as producer and director of “The Pianist of Willesden Lane,” pianist and radio personality Mona Golabek’s one-woman show about her mother, Lisa Jura, which Felder adapted from Golabek and Lee Cohen’s 2002 memoir, “The Children of Willesden Lane.”

Lisa Jura’s story is a poignant one, and Golabek tells it as only a daughter can, underscoring the narrative with selections from Bach, Mozart, Debussy, Chopin and Grieg. The last composer’s Piano Concerto is the piece her mother, a piano prodigy at age 14, dreams of playing at her debut in Vienna, where she grows up in a loving family and studies with a fine instructor. But the year is 1938, the Nazis forbid the teaching of Jewish students, and after the horrors of Kristallnacht, Lisa is sent to sanctuary in England with the single ticket for the Kindertransport her father wins in a card game.

Most of the evening is about what happens once she gets there, especially at a North London hostel for about 30 Jewish refugee children run by Mrs. Cohen. Lisa charms and inspires the others and continues practicing despite long hours of factory work and frequent bombings, one of which destroys her new home. Eventually, she successfully auditions for the London Royal Academy of Music, meets a French lieutenant playing piano for servicemen at a hotel, and realizes her dream — though she loses her parents.
Golabek is an accomplished pianist and straightforward storyteller with a good story to tell, but she’s no actress. When she tries to impersonate the characters in her mother’s life, all the men sound roughly the same, as do all the women (with a slightly higher pitch for kids). Felder’s adaptation could use some fine-tuning, too: For example, much is made of the fact that Mrs. Cohen is willing to take in Lisa for only a week, but there’s no explanation of why she gets to stay permanently.

In addition, if you’re frustrated by frequent interruptions of musical compositions or by recorded orchestras accompanying live pianists, this is not the production for you. On the up side, Andrew Wilder and Greg Sowizdrzal’s projections of family photos and filmed footage in the ornate gilded frames of David A. Buess and Trevor Hay’s set help bring the era to life. All in all, “The Pianist of Willesden Lane” is worth seeing but could be even better.