Theater: Music is the Ultimate Healer in The Pianist of Willesden Lane

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Mona Golabek chronicles her mother’s struggles and salvation amid the horrors of the Holocaust in the acclaimed solo show, which opens at the Segal Center in Montreal on September 8.

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It may be a truism to say that the Nazis did not win in 1945. But just to underline this, pianist Mona Golabek’s one-woman show The Pianist of Willesden Lane, which performs at the Segal Center from Sunday to September. 29, recalls the extent to which Nazism was completely defeated in its goal of erasing Jews from history and culture.

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Speaking from his hometown of Los Angeles, Golabek quotes the words of Stephen Smith, president of the Shoah Foundation of Steven Spielberg and co-founder of the National Holocaust Center in the United Kingdom.

“He told me that every time you go on stage and play this Grieg piano concerto, you can hold your head up, (because) through the music and through the generations that survive, you show that the Nazis did not win. “

Based on The Children of Willesden Lane, the 2002 best-selling book that Golabek co-wrote with journalist Lee Cohen, the show portrays the remarkable experiences of his mother, Lisa Jura. Although Golabek’s Austrian grandparents Abraham and Malka perished in Auschwitz, they managed to send 14-year-old Lisa to London using the Kindertransport.

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Following Malka’s farewell advice as she boarded the train – “Hold on to your music: it will be your best friend” – Lisa determinedly secured a place at the Royal Academy of Music and became a pianist. internationally renowned concert, transmitting his talent, and his status, to his two daughters. Much of the show involves Golabek performing classical pieces on a Steinway piano, including Grieg’s Piano Concerto, the music with which Lisa made her professional debut.

Touring the stage version of his book has become Golabek’s mission in life. But in 2012, she had to learn a whole new discipline from scratch. Although she played music all over the world and presented a regular show, The Romantic Hours, on the radio, she had never performed before. On the advice of Hershey Felder, the Montreal-born impresario turned director and adapter of the series (and married, by the way, to former Prime Minister Kim Campbell), Golabek signed up for theater.

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Despite the show’s success and praise for her performance, she is not, she insists, on the verge of progressing into major Shakespearean female roles.

“Oh no, no, it’s my only thing,” Golabek laughs. “I’ll leave that to all the experts out there. Listen, humbly, I think I’m a storyteller who will share my mother’s story. That’s all I’m doing here.

This story has enough emotional turmoil to test the most accomplished actor, including the horrors of Kristallnacht, Lisa’s escape to London, days and nights practicing at the piano in a North London basement during as the Blitz rages on, the agony of awaiting news of the fates of his parents and siblings, and of friendships, and more, with fellow refugees. (The Jura married the hero of the French Resistance Michel Golabek.)

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“I would think a lot about who she was in life,” Golabek says of the challenge of playing her own mother. “I thought about the strength she had and the frustrations she went through, her willpower, the larger than life character she was.”

Golabek also plays many characters Lisa has come to know among the displaced children staying at the Willesden Lane hostel, including fiery best friend Gina and Hans, the boy blinded by an anti-Semitic attack that took Golabek to visit the hostel. . in 1999. Did any of the children from Willesden Lane get to see the show?

“Gina could see it,” Golabek says. “I made her stand up to say hello. The audience went crazy to see the real Gina in her 90s. Now she calls me all the time to ask me when she’s going to go on the road with me.

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It would be an exhausting prospect, even for a spirited 90-year-old: Since the show debuted in Los Angeles in 2012, Golabek has performed it in London, Paris, Poland, Austria, South Africa, Zimbabwe and across the states. -United. version in development.

“We are one people on this earth;  we need stories that bring us together, ”says Mona Golabek, who will perform The Pianist of Willesden Lane at the Segal Center.
“We are one people on this earth; we need stories that bring us together, ”says Mona Golabek, who will perform The Pianist of Willesden Lane at the Segal Center. Photo by Hershey Felder presents

While gratifying, the tour of the show reminded Golabek how much his message is still needed.

“If you look at the world today, which is in such disarray, in such turmoil, with leaders that we cannot even respect, I am not going to get into politics here, because I do not m ‘ever go down this road, “Golabek said. , pausing. “We are one people on this earth; we need stories that bring us together. We did the show for 14,000 kids in Pittsburgh last year after filming (at the Tree of Life Synagogue). But there is a huge increase in anti-Semitism across the world – I see it on my travels. I see racism on the rise, and this is unacceptable.

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Bringing the show to the Segal Center, with its strong Jewish identity and location across from the Holocaust Museum, clearly has additional resonance for Golabek. But she insists on her universal message “it doesn’t matter where you come from, as long as your heart is open. I constantly say that this is the history of mankind from man to man, because I am alive today, and many children are alive today, because of a decision that was taken to save 10,000 Jewish children. It is also about the British people and their incredible courage and courage under the Blitz.

“I think the biggest message in this story is the story of how a little girl held onto her music in the darkest times, and how it helped her get through it.”

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This echo of her grandmother’s advice to Lisa as she boarded the Kindertransport train continues through to the Hold on to Your Music foundation, which Golabek helped set up to raise awareness. the effects of atrocities such as Holocaust and the empowering and healing powers of the arts, especially music.

Music is so integral to her mother’s story, in fact, that Golabek describes the Steinway piano she plays on stage as a character in itself.

“You know, pianos have personalities,” she says. “The Steinway is the grand piano of all great musicians. It’s the Rolls-Royce of pianos. I consider him a character because the music is so important. It is a secret arrow that penetrates the heart, without words.

IN THE BLINK OF AN EYE

Willesden Lane pianist is presented from Sunday September 8 to Sunday September 29 at the Segal Center, 5170 chemin Côte-Ste-Catherine. Tickets: $ 67. Discounts for groups, seniors, students and under 30s subject to availability. Call 514 739-7944 or visit segalcentre.org.

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