EYE ON THEATRE
By JOHN SIMON
In early 1938, Lisa Jura, a young Jewish girl in Vienna, dreamed that one day she would become a concert pianist. In March, her dreams were shattered. German troops took over Austria, her homeland. She became a refugee, one of about 10,000 children brought to England before World War II as part of the Kindertransport—a mission to rescue children threatened by the Nazis. Her daughter Mona Golabek and writer Lee Cohen tell her story in The Children of Willesden Lane.
I tend to look askance at one-man or one-woman shows, but here is one I can unconditionally recommend: “The Pianist of Willenden Lane” at 59E59 Theaters.
It is the story of the pianist Lisa Jura, the mother of the pianist Mona Golabek, adapted by Hershey Felder from the book by Mona Golabek and Lee Cohen, “The Children of Willenden Lane.” Directed by Felder, Ms. Golabek plays—on stage and piano—her mother.
Lisa Jura was a girl of almost 15 in Vienna, whom her piano teacher sadly repudiated. She had come for her weekly lesson only to be informed that, by ordinance of the new Nazi regime, Jewish children were no longer to be taught. Her mother, herself a pianist, took over her teaching, while her father, one of Vienna’s foremost tailors, was more and more absent, gambling till all hours,
Then the fatal day came. Lisa was one of three sisters, for one of whom her father had won a passage on the Kindertransport, the famed undertaking by British Jews and Christians to import children from Germany and Austria out of harm’s way. That day her father had been beaten and humiliated, his clothing torn or stolen, but there was that one ticket he won. Yet for which of his three daughters? The difficult choice fell on Lisa.
The young girl’s trip to London was fraught and her father’s cousin who was to take care of her could not fit her into his new, much smaller and overcrowded apartment. So she was assigned to Brighton, the home of a retired officer. Here there was a piano, but no one was allowed to play it, to do the one thing Lisa’s piano-playing and loving mother had exhorted her to hang on to for dear life.
So Lisa eventually escaped: bought a ticket to London with the little money she had, and boldly barged in on Mr. Hardesty, the head of Kindertransport. This was no mean accomplishment for a 15-year-old in a foreign country. The shocked, but also impressed, Hardesty, took her to the other end of London, to the hostel of a Mrs, Cohen, who was already looking after, sternly but decently, a number of boys and girls.
There Lisa kept sneaking down to the basement to practice on a piano kept there.
She impressed all with her playing and became good friends with several of the other kids. But none of her letters to her family reached them, and none arrived for her. Pianism was not reckoned a skill, but sewing, which she had learned from her father, was. Since every kid had to have a job, she was farmed out for long work hours to a firm that made uniforms for the military.
The Blitz was on, and one night a bomb hit the hostel. Luckily no one was killed, but all the children were dispersed, Lisa ending up not far away with a kindly Quaker lady. Mrs, Cohen vowed to have the hostel rebuilt, at which she bit by bit miraculously succeeded. The high point of Lisa’s life was being taken, by one of her fellows now in the Royal Air Force, to one of those concerts the great pianist Myra Hess was giving all through the Blitz for brave souls in defiance of the bombardment.
One day a newspaper ad solicited candidates for admission to the Royal Academy of Music. Rigorously, Lisa trained for the examination, of which we get a fascinating account. A long, anxious time passed until a letter came announcing that she was chosen, and finally assigned to a distinguished teacher such as her mother had hoped for her. Absent her parents, Mrs. Cohen and her wards paid for Lisa’s lessons. What came thereafter, you must find out for yourself.
In the course of the performance, Mona as Lisa plays works by Bach, Beethoven, Chopin, Debussy, Rachmaninoff and Scriabin, as well as requests by fellow youngsters for “Strike Up the Band” and “These Foolish Things.” She plays them all beautifully, but what is truly impressive is her ability to narrate simultaneously with her playing. That is not easy. Moreover, Ms. Golabek acts out scenes with various others, and proves herself equally adept as pianist, narrator and actress.
There is a simple set by Felder and Trevor Hay, which includes a Steinway grand and hanging above four gilded picture frames into which will be projected family portraits as well as filmed images of terrifying historic events making powerful contributions. One piece of music in consecutive excerpts runs through the entire show. It is the Grieg Piano Concerto, with which Lisa dreamed of making her professional debut, and finally, if not in Vienna’s fabled Musikverein, did. Too bad that the orchestra recording that backs her up is not of as high a quality as everything else.
But what you will come away with is both a gripping piece of drama and a recital by a piano virtuoso of the first rank. It makes, seamlessly blended, for a twofold delight that will live on undiminished in your memory.
Venue for The Pianist of Willesden Lane: 59E59 Theater A, 59 East 59th Street, between Park and Madison Avenues, New York, NY 10022. Performances from July 11- August 24, 2014. Ticket Central at 212-279-4200, from 12 Noon to 8 pm. E-mail: tickets@59E59.org Online ticket purchases: http://www.59e59.org/boxoffice.php#TicketInfo
SIMON-073114-The Gig- Kevin Pariseau, Bruce Sabath, Nick Gaswirth, Michael Minarik, Larry Cahn, and Steve Routman Photo by Russ Rowland.jpg
Kevin Pariseau, Bruce Sabath, Nick Gaswirth, Michael Minarik, Larry Cahn, and Steve Routman in “The Gig”. Photo by and courtesy of Russ Rowland.
A lesser but still pleasant evening was to be had with the rewritten and expanded version of “The Gig.” This was a movie by the estimable Frank D. Gilroy, adapted into a stage musical with book, music and lyrics by Douglas J. Cohen. The show had mountings in various venues, but this was its first full New York exposure, albeit in a very short run as is the rule at the New York Musical Theatre Festival. It is, however, worthy of being picked up for an open run.
It tells of six, mostly middle-aged men from diverse professions, who meet on Wednesdays to play jazz for their own satisfaction. Then one of them responds to an ad for a six-piece band to play for a couple of summer weeks in a Jewish hotel in the Catskills.
Five of them more or less grudgingly decide to make it; one, because of impending surgery, cannot. He is the bassist and is replaced by a black musician with impressive experience with leading orchestras. When they get to the hotel with a paradisiac name but, for them, miserly accommodations under a tightwad hotelier, who fancies himself ludicrously a standup comic. There is also an elderly audience that disappointingly seems to prefer sweet swing to cool jazz.
Adventures and misadventures ensue. There are involvements with two young waitresses and with a female vocalist of some standing but now in decline, and her gangsterish manager and presumed lover. There are internecine frictions as well as camaraderie among the musicians, mostly comic, but also with an admixture of seriousness.
The music is performed onstage by actors miming playing their instruments while vocalizing their music, abetted also by a genuine four-piece offstage band. That in itself is good comedic spectacle. But the evolving story and Cohen’s good songs, along with catchy dialogue inherited from the movie, all combine into steady fun.
The eleven actors, with one of them doubling, fill their roles admirably. Their names would mean little to you, but, rest assured, they handle their fictional instruments as well as their salty dialogue under Igor Goldin’s savvy direction. There is even some compelling romance with the two very different waitresses.
What would have helped, though, is if this bare-bones production had had some modest scenery instead of ignoring or faking it like those invisible instruments.
It would be nice, I repeat, if some enterprising producer transferred the show to another Off Broadway stage, and supplied a bit of Catskill scenery for atmosphere.
Although perhaps not nine, these Catskills might prove to have at the very least a couple of lives.
Venue for “The Gig” at PTC Performance Space, 555 West 42nd Street, New York, NY 10036. Tickets and performance schedule: www.nymf.org
John Simon has written for over 50 years on theatre, film, literature, music and fine arts for the Hudson Review, New Leader, New Criterion, National Review, New York Magazine, Opera News, Weekly Standard, Broadway.com and Bloomberg News. He reviews books for the New York Times Book Review and Washington Post. To learn more, visit the www.JohnSimon-Uncensored.com website.