THEATER REVIEW: “The Pianist of Willesden Lane”

Lisa Jura was 14 in 1938, when the events of Kristallnacht destroyed Jewish-owned businesses in Vienna and signaled the beginning of Hitler’s extermination campaign against the Jews.

At that time Lisa was studying piano with her mother, a concert pianist, and even at that young age, Lisa dreamed of performing the Grieg Piano Concerto in a concert hall with her family in attendance.

Her father lost his tailoring business that night, and turned to gambling to make money. One night he came home beaten, bruised and humiliated by the Nazis, but clutching a valuable piece of paper: He had won a place on the Kindertransport (hastily arranged to evacuate Jewish children before it was too late) at the gaming tables. The question: which of his three daughters would they send?

Her parents made the agonizing decision to put the talented Lisa on the transport, thus beginning a spellbinding story of dislocation, separation, loneliness and courage.

“Hold onto your music,” her mother said as she put her on the train. “It will be your best friend.”

Concert pianist Mona Golabek – Lisa’s daughter – tells and performs her mother’s story in the riveting 90-minute “The Pianist of Willesden Lane,” playing through Sept. 28 at San Diego Repertory Theatre.

Hershey Felder, no stranger to one-man musical shows himself (“George Gershwin Alone,” “Maestro Bernstein,” “Beethoven As I Knew Him”), adapted and directs this show.

This is a jewel of a show – and a smashing performance by Golabek, who not only plays like an angel but is also a fine storyteller. It’s a story of love, loss and fear, but also of kindness, freedom and eventual triumph. Through it all, the many characters in her story shine through, as does her beautiful touch on the Steinway piano.

Felder and trevor Hay have designed a simple but elegant set with four huge, ornate picture frames, onto which Andrew Wilder and Greg Sowizdrzal project portraits, historical footage and other pertinent scenes. These visuals, augmented by Christopher Rynne’s lighting and Erik Carstensen’s sound design, lend immediacy to Golabek’s words and music.

History comes alive in this lovely and inspiring piece. Don’t miss it.

The details

“The Pianist of Willesden Lane” plays through Oct. 12 at San Diego Repertory Theatre’s Lyceum Stage, 79 Horton Plaza, downtown San Diego, California.

Tuesday and Wednesday at 7 pm; Thursday and Friday at 8 pm; Saturday at 2 and 8 pm; Sunday at 2 and 7 pm.

Tickets: (619) 544-1000 or HERE.

To read more reviews by SDGLN Theater Critic Jean Lowerison, click HERE.