The Segal Centre opens its 2019-20 theatre season with Montreal native Hershey Felder’s production, The Pianist of Willesden Lane, in the Sylvan Adams Theatre from Sept. 8-29.
The show stars American storyteller and concert pianist Mona Golabek, who recounts her Austrian-born Jewish mother’s inspiring story of surviving the Second World War through a live performance of classical music.
Felder, a Dora Wasserman Yiddish Theatre alumnus, adapted it from the book, The Children of Willesden Lane by Golabek and Lee Cohen.
Set in Vienna in 1938 and in London during the Blitz, The Pianist of Willesden Lane is about the teenaged Lisa Jura, an aspiring pianist who dreams about her concert debut at Vienna’s storied Musikverein concert hall. That hope is shattered with the new Nazi regime’s anti-Jewish oppression.
With three daughters but only one passage to safety on the Kindertransport, which rescued thousands of European children by bringing them to England as the war approached, Jura’s parents are confronted with a painful choice.
Jura is eventually selected by her parents and, separated from her family, embarks on a journey that delivers her from immediate danger, but into the harsh reality of a country constantly under threat of bombings and a potential German invasion. All the while, Jura never lets go of her ambition to become a concert pianist.
Performing on a Steinway piano, the Grammy-nominated Golabek plays beloved music by such composers as Claude Debussy, Johann Sebastian Bach, Edvard Grieg, Ludwig van Beethoven and Frédéric Chopin, while sharing her mother’s story of perseverance.
“The Pianist of Willesden Lane is infused with hope and invokes the life-affirming power of music,” says Felder, who is also the director.
This is the production’s Montreal debut. It follows successful runs in New York, where it had its premiere in 2012 at the Geffen Playhouse, as well as in Chicago, Boston, Los Angeles, San Diego, London and elsewhere in Europe.
It was a New York Times critics’ pick and Golabek received best actress nominations from the New York Drama Critics’ Circle and Los Angeles Drama Critics.
“I’m thrilled to finally have internationally acclaimed pianist and actor Hershey Felder back in his hometown for the Montreal premiere of this remarkable production,” said Lisa Rubin, the Segal’s artistic and executive director.
“Showcasing the signature style that made (Felder) such a star, Mona Golabek’s awe-inspiring talent and her mother’s heart-wrenching tale, this production is truly a once-in-a-lifetime experience.”
Golabek’s father was a French resistance fighter who received France’s Croix de Guerre. Her grandparents died at Auschwitz.
Taught by her mother, Golabek has performed at the Hollywood Bowl, the Kennedy Center and the Royal Festival Hall, as well as with orchestras around the world. She has also been the subject of several documentaries.
The Children of Willesden Lane has been translated into eight languages and been adapted as an educational resource for schools in the United States.
To date, more than 400,000 students and families have experienced the Willesden Read, a project spearheaded by Golabek’s Hold On To Your Music Foundation, which is devoted to spreading the message of her mother’s experience.
A pianist and actor himself, Felder, 51, has given over 5,000 performances of his solo productions in the U.S. and internationally, including George Gershwin Alone, which was staged at Broadway’s Helen Hayes Theatre and the West End’s Duchess Theatre; Maestro, a Leonard Bernstein tribute named to Time magazine’s 2016 Top 10 plays and musicals list; and Hershey Felder as Irving Berlin.
Among Felder’s current projects is composing a musical based on the award-winning memoir, Out on a Ledge: Enduring the Lodz Ghetto, Auschwitz, and Beyond by Eva Libitzky. He has been a scholar-in-residence at Harvard University’s department of music and, last but not least, he is married to Kim Campbell, the first female prime minister of Canada.