December 10, 2019

Music transcends darkest hours in ‘Willesden Lane’

Malka and Abraham Jura faced a Solomonic decision in late 1938, as the Nazis were tightening the vise on the Jews of Vienna. The couple hoped to send their three daughters to safety but were able to wrangle only one place on the Kindertransport ferrying a limited number of Jewish children to London. After much agonizing, the Juras decided to give the spot to 14-year-old Lisa, a remarkable piano prodigy.

So begins the story leading up to “The Pianist of Willesden Lane,” whose world premiere is set for the Geffen Playhouse in Westwood.

Once in London, Lisa found shelter with 30 other young Jewish refugees in a Quaker-run hostel on Willesden Lane, later enduring intense German aerial bombardment during the London Blitz.

Playing the role of Lisa Jura in the one-character play is her daughter, Mona Golabek, carrying on her mother’s and grandmother’s musical family tradition.

Golabek wrote of her mother’s travails and musical triumphs in her book “The Children of Willesden Lane” (with Lee Cohen), on which the show is based.

But the real message of the play is the power of music to uplift our spirits in the darkest of times, Golabek observed during an interview at the Geffen Playhouse, and her performance is permeated with some of the world’s most enduring piano compositions.

Unlike many survivors of the Holocaust era, who never spoke about their experiences with their children, Lisa Jura shared her stories freely with her daughters Mona and Renee.

“My mother would be giving us piano lessons and suddenly a passage would remind her of some childhood event and she would talk about it,” Golabek said.

One such incident was Lisa’s heartbreaking separation from her family at the Vienna train station, when her mother’s final words to her were, “Hold on to your music; it will be your best friend.”

The advice has become the family’s leitmotif through succeeding generations and is perpetuated in their Hold On To Your Music Foundation, supported by the Milken Family Foundation and the Annenberg Foundation.

There is one other dimension to Golabek’s performance in the play. “My role allows me to pay homage to my parents,” she said. “How many people ever get that opportunity?”

After the war, Lisa, now married, moved to Los Angeles, where Mona was born and grew up to become an acclaimed concert pianist.

Her honors include the Avery Fisher Prize and the People’s Award of the International Chopin Competition, as well as a Grammy nomination.

She has appeared with the world’s leading orchestras and at the most prestigious concert halls, and is both the creator and the voice of the syndicated radio program “The Romantic Hours,” which combines classical music with readings of poetry, letters and stories.

Three years ago, Golabek met Hershey Felder, best known as the piano-playing alter ego of George Gershwin, Leonard Bernstein, Ludwig van Beethoven and Frederic Chopin, while he was performing at the Geffen Playhouse.

She asked Felder whether the story of her mother could be transferred to the stage. He said yes and set about writing an adaptation of the book.

Felder is now behind the scenes, as the play’s director, an unusual position for him. Actually, his friends are so used to seeing him at the center of the stage action, he said, “They suspect I may be playing Mona’s role in drag.” It has been a busy few months for Felder. Besides rehearsing for “The Pianist,” he has been on stage in solo performances of “Monsieur Chopin,” “Maestro: The Art of Leonard Bernstein” and “Lincoln — An American Story,” at the Pasadena Playhouse.

If “The Pianist” is successful, Golabek hopes to take it on a national tour and then overseas, where her book has proved popular. She said that she has received numerous offers for the film rights, but is “waiting for the right one.”

Golabek’s Jewish heritage is an inextricable part of her life. “I’m proud of Israel, and I’m proud of our Jewish history,” she said. “But today, being a Jew is also a responsibility. I have to earn what my parents and grandparents did for me.”

“The Pianist of Willesden Lane” will be at the Audrey Skirball Kenis Theater of the Geffen Playhouse, with previews starting April 17. The official opening night is April 25 and closing night June 24. For tickets and information, call (310) 208-5454 or visit