'THE PIANIST OF WILLESDEN LANE'
When: Through May 12
Where: Royal George Theatre, 1641 N. Halsted
Info:(312) 988-9000; www.theroyalgeorgetheatre.com
Run time: 95 minutes with no intermission
"The Pianist of Willesden Lane," Mona Golabek's exquisitely rendered musical memoir -- now in a limited engagement at the Royal George Theatre -- begins, fittingly enough, with an exhilarating description of her mother, Lisa Jura, as she boards a trolley in Vienna and heads off to the highlight of her week -- a piano lesson. She is 14 years old.
The year is 1938. And Lisa, already a fully cosmopolitan spirit and gifted musician, clearly delights in the grandeur of the elegant city around her as she dreams of one day becoming a recognized concert pianist and a member of the artistic cafe society that thrives there. But the Nazis have other ideas for this Jewish girl and her family.
Soldiers have begun to be posted along the streets, and Lisa's elderly teacher tells her he is no longer permitted to teach Jewish students, and that he is not brave enough to defy the ban. Very soon afterward, the Nazis will make make their designs even clearer with the pogrom known as Kristallnacht. But at this very moment Lisa's father has managed to work a considerable miracle -- a single treasured place in the "kindertransport," that fabled rescue mission that enabled 10,000 Jewish children to flee to England for safety. Her parents and two sisters would be left behind.
And so begins the story of an incredibly spirited, exceptionally talented teenage refugee whose adventures during the wartime years in England assume a sort of latter-day Dickensian quality, with a few Cinderella touches thrown in for good measure.
Everything we are told about (including some beguiling romantic episodes) actually happened. And were this all performed only as a spoken narrative it would be enthralling enough. But Golabek, like her mother, is a superb pianist. And in the most seamless manner she infuses her story with music that runs the gamut from Bach and Beethoven, to Grieg, Chopin and more. Her description of working in a garment factory, of finding her place in several "hostels," and most thrillingly -- of her rapidfire audition for the Royal Academy of Music (an event that changed her life), are alone worth the price of admission.
Not surprisingly, Golabek's show, based on the book she wrote with Lee Cohen, has been adapted and directed (flawlessly) by Hershey Felder, whose stylistic imprint it bears. But Golabek, with her reddish bob and easily accessible manner, is very much her own person -- a woman with the sort of spunk, charm and immense talent that allowed her mother to prevail.
Handsomely co-designed by David Buess and Trevor Hay, the stage is a collage of Old Word gilded picture frames filled with vintage photos and film. It captures the world that forged Lisa Jura, and the one that her daughter has so poignantly and beautifully reconstructed in her honor. This is a must-see.