It hardly seems accurate to describe “The Pianist of Willesden Lane” as a solo show, even though storyteller/concert pianist Mona Golabek is the only performer onstage: The classical music Golabek plays is such a powerful presence — and one so integral to this affecting and intimate show — that it almost deserves its own curtain call.
Presented by Theater J at the Kennedy Center, “The Pianist of Willesden Lane” tells the true story of a brilliant young pianist, Lisa Jura — Golabek’s mother — before and during World War II. Raised in Vienna, Lisa is a teenager when the Nazi regime becomes a dire threat to her Jewish family. After escaping to England on the Kindertransport, Lisa finds herself a near-destitute refugee, working as a factory seamstress and stealing moments at a piano in a London basement as bombs fall during the Blitz. Her onetime dreams of a concert career now seem beyond her reach — or are they?
Golabek authored a book about her mother’s experience, “The Children of Willesden Lane” (written with Lee Cohen). This stage production was adapted and directed by Hershey Felder, the creator of other musical-biography plays, such as “George Gershwin Alone.” (“The Pianist of Willesden Lane” has previously run in New York, London and elsewhere. Here, it kicks off a season that Theater J is mounting at stages around the District while its parent organization, the Edlavitch DC Jewish Community Center, copes with renovations of its building.)
Felder’s conception works nicely here. Wearing a black dress, the soft-spoken Golabek tells the story in an appealingly simple, direct fashion. Ably channeling her teenaged mother, she refrains from waxing too actorly when depicting other characters, such as Lisa’s polite Viennese piano teacher (who is forced to stop teaching Jewish students), the harried director of a London refugee-assistance center, and a lovesick French Resistance fighter.
When the script touches on music that Lisa played — works by Debussy, Rachmaninoff, Edvard Grieg and others — Golabek sits at a grand piano and performs. These interpretations of (excerpted) scores are resplendent in themselves — Golabek’s technique and musicality are tremendous — and they also seem to bridge past and present. In a way, we are hearing what Lisa heard.
Hanging above the piano on the Family Theater stage are enormous gilded frames that relay projections, including images of Vienna streets, World War II fighter planes and Lisa’s family. Photos of children accompany a scene set in the eponymous Willesden Lane, where a generous matriarch takes in Lisa and other refugee kids. Needless to say, it’s a plot point that resonates, given the current world refugee crisis and recent family separations at the U.S. border.
Despite tragic notes, “Pianist” is ultimately upbeat. En route to its hopeful denouement, a bustling piano passage at one point amusingly represents the motion of a factory sewing machine. It’s music doing an acting turn.
“The Pianist of Willesden Lane,” adapted and directed by Hershey Felder; based on the book “The Children of Willesden Lane” by Mona Golabek and Lee Cohen. Scenic design, Felder and Trevor Hay; associate direction, Hay; costume design, Jaclyn Maduff; lighting, Jason Bieber; sound, Erik Carstensen; projections, Andrew Wilder and Greg Sowizdrzal; video director, Lawrence Siefert. Presented by Theater J. About 90 minutes. Tickets: $44-$74. Through Sept. 30 at the Kennedy Center’s Family Theater. www.theaterj.org