Produced by: Hershey Felder
Adapted and directed by: Hershey Felder
Featuring: Mona Golabek
When: January 15-February 16, 2020
Where: Mountain View Center for Performing Arts, 500 Castro Street, Mountain View
Tickets: $30-$100. Visit https://theatreworks.org/201920-season/pianist-of-willesden-lane/ or call 650-463-1960
of the triumph of the human spirit
Since 2016, audiences for TheatreWorks Silicon Valley have been wooed, charmed, and entertained at about this time yearly by the great Hershey Felder.
This year, Felder is leaving the wooing, charming, and entertaining to pianist Mona Golabek, who will perform a story about her mother, in the musical story “The Pianist of Willesden Lane.”
Felder writes and performs shows about great composers, from Ludwig van Beethoven to Irving Berlin, entertaining audiences in the biggest money-earning shows in the history of TheatreWorks.
Golabek’s show is produced by Felder, who read the book (by Golabek and Lee Cohen) about Golabek’s mother’s escape from the Nazis during World War II.
“I’m in such awe of him,” Golabek said of Felder during a recent phone interview. “He changed the course of my life, gave me an opportunity to bring this story to the world. He’s a talented artist, has exacting standards, challenges fellow artists to be the best they can be.”
Golabek, a concert pianist, had seen Felder’s show about Beethoven.
“I was so stunned by what he was doing. I met him, and told him about my mother. He took a chance on me, and helped me develop this show.”
Golabek’s mother, Lisa Jura Golabek, was raised in Vienna, where she loved to ride the street car to her piano lessons. From the beautifully written book:
“The images rushed by her window — the glorious Ferris wheel of the Prater amusement park and the blue and serene Danube — eerily accompanied by the distant rhythm of an oompah band. To go across the city was to enter another century — the era of grand palaces and stately ballrooms. Street upon street of marble and granite, of pillar and pediment. The spire of St. Stephen’s Cathedral danced by. Her father called it ‘Der Alte Steffe’ — ‘Old Stevie.’ Lisa thought it a silly name; it was much more grand than that, rising to the heavens like a castle in a fairy tale.”
“My mother told me the story of her life as she taught me piano,” Golabek said. “All about her dreams as a child growing up in Vienna, and the Germans coming in.”
Young Lisa, on that streetcar, was surprised when the conductor called out the name “Meistersinger-Strasse,” instead of what she had been expecting: “Mahler-Strasse.” The street signs had been changed because “the Nazis did not approve of such a grand avenue being named after a Jew.”
The Nazis also didn’t like Lisa’s piano teacher having a Jewish girl as a student, so those lessons ended. And her father’s business as a tailor was hurt by the sign posted on his shop: “Jüdisches Geschäft”: “Jewish business.” The Nazis had forbidden gentiles to use Jewish tailors.
Life got worse — much worse — for Jews in Vienna, but then a seat opened on the “Kinderstransport,” and Lisa was chosen for it. She was able to escape the Nazis and was sent to England. She had to leave her sisters, Sonia and Rosie, and her parents, Malka and Abraham, behind.
Willesden Lane was the location of the hostel she lived in while in England, and the book Golabek and Cohen wrote is subtitled, “Beyond the Kinderstransport: A Memoir of Music, Love, and Survival.”
In the stage production, Golabek covers her blond hair with a dark wig and becomes her mother, Lisa, telling of the life she led during World War II, and carrying the story along with the music she loved to play.
“The audience takes a journey, following a young girl who had a dream, and how she fought for that dream,” Golabek said. “We meet people who helped her, people who emphasized man’s humanity for man. They are stories that remind us of the goodness of humanity, even through the loss and pain.
“The story is told through the music. Ultimately, the triumph of the human spirit.”
Music important to Lisa’s story, and that of Golabek, will be heard: The Grieg Piano Concerto, Debussy’s Clair de Lune, Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata, the Rachmaninoff Prelude, Bach’s Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring, and others.
“My whole life is built around this, and the profound educational mission attached to it,” said Golabek, who also relates the story of her mother’s life in other ways, not only in the musical presentation. “I just came from South Africa, where students had just read the book on which this is based. My mother's story is having a profound impact on young people.”
Golabek has plenty going on in her life — radio shows, recording, concerts, the Hold On To Your Music Foundation (which she founded) — but is deeply devoted to telling her mother’s story.
“I consider this a profound mission in my life. I’ve been given the destiny to tell a very powerful story. People come up to me, say, you are telling my story, or my grandparent’s story, or a neighbor’s. It’s a universal story.
“We are at a crossroads. If we don’t find a way to break down these walls between us, we will not survive. This kind of divisive rhetoric (as heard from President Trump) is destroying the bonds between us. We’ve arrived at a century where we have the capacity to destroy our globe, our Earth, if we don’t find a way to change our lives.
“Ghandi, Mandela, Mother Teresa — we need those kinds of leaders. In South Africa, I performed on the stage where Mandela spoke from the balcony, after he was released from prison. I am glad to share a story that enters people’s hearts.
“African-American, Hispanic students really identify with the story of a Jewish teenager in World War II. They also witness bigotry, they also have dreams they want to go for.”