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Hershey Felder brings “The Pianist of Willesden Lane” to the Westport Country Playhouse

By Cindy Mindell

WESTPORT – Growing up in Vienna, Austria in the 1930s, Lisa Jura always dreamed she’d become a concert pianist. When the Nazis invaded in March 1938, the Jewish girl’s life changed forever. She became a refugee, one of some 10,000 children brought to England before the outbreak of World War II as part of the Kindertransport, a mission to rescue children threatened by the Nazis.

As Jura boarded the train that would take her from her family, her grandmother Malka gave her one last piece of advice: “Hold on to your music. It will be your best friend.” Jura would never see Malka, her parents, or her siblings again.

Jura’s story is told by her daughter, concert pianist Mona Golabek, and co-author Lee Cohen, in The Children of Willesden Lane: Beyond the Kindertransport, A Memoir of Music, Love, and Survival (Grand Central Publishing, 2002). The book chronicles Jura’s life as a young musician living in a children’s home at 243 Willesden Lane in London during the Blitzkrieg, and follows her after the war to Paris and Los Angeles.

In 2012, Golabek brought her mother’s story to the stage in The Pianist of Willesden Lane, adapted and directed by internationally acclaimed virtuoso pianist and composer Hershey Felder. With the help of a grand piano, Golabek weaves together the narrative and music of her mother’s life, describing her journey from Europe to the U.S. and how Jura used her grandmother’s words to survive and thrive.

Since the world premiere at the Geffen Playhouse in Los Angeles, Golabek has reprised the one-woman musical memoir across the country and beyond – including performances in New York, San Diego, Boston, Chicago, and London. (To read an interview with Lisa Jura, see “The Pianist of Willesden Lane,” Connecticut Jewish Ledger, www.jewishledger.com, March 12, 2015.)

The Pianist of Willesden Lane will have a limited, seven-performance engagement at the Westport Country Playhouse from April 5 through April 9.

After writing The Children of Willesden Lane, Golabek sought out Felder to brainstorm ideas for a staged performance.

“I said, ‘I think this can be turned into a nice theatrical piece,’” recalls Felder. “I didn’t read the book, on purpose, because I didn’t want to adapt the book; I adapted it directly from Mona’s storytelling.”

A native of Montreal, Quebec, Felder is a first-generation North American, born to a Polish-Jewish father and a Hungarian-Jewish mother. He grew up in a traditional, Yiddish-speaking Jewish home, surrounded by European immigrants, and was a student at the Hebrew Academy Day School of Montreal, where he learned French and Hebrew.

In 1994, Felder worked for Steven Spielberg’s Shoah Foundation in Los Angeles, interviewing Holocaust survivors in order to catalog their oral histories on film. The following year, he was one of four interviewers invited to attend the 50th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz in Poland, which led to his creation of George Gershwin Alone.

“My background is the basis of all my work; I’ve never shied away from who I am and where I come from; many of my characters deal with Jewish issues and have a lot of Jewish presence,” says Felder, who first took piano lessons as a child and went on to create, perform, and record several acclaimed productions: George Gershwin Alone played on Broadway and in London’s West End, and in theaters around the country. His Composers Sonata – George Gershwin Alone; Monsieur Chopin; Beethoven, As I Knew Him; Maestro Bernstein; Hershey Felder as Franz Liszt in Musik; and Hershey Felder as Irving Berlin – has been presented across the U.S. and around the world.

Felder now splits his time between North America and Europe, where he lives in Paris.

“I’ve never not been involved in Jewish life,” he says. “I’ve traveled all over the world so wherever I am, I’m involved in the Jewish community in that way. I don’t pretend that I’m not Jewish. I’m very Jewish in my way of being.”

While he grew up “highly aware” of antisemitism, particularly in Quebec, Felder finds that his attitude has changed over decades of traveling and performing in many countries.

“When you become a citizen of the world, you become more aware and at the same time, less aware because you sort of accept everything,” he says. “But we’re living in complicated times: with what’s going in the world, America is getting to see what European Jewish life has been like. I think the stone has been overturned and a lot of bad things are beginning to happen. They were there lurking, but in Europe, they had just been much more on the surface, whereas in North America, they were a little bit more hidden.”

How do artists navigate anxious times? Golabek uses music to relay a traumatic story that somehow delivers a message of hope. For Felder, the point of art and the job of the artist is to always find “the good, the beauty, the human aspect of something.”

“We need to be human, we need to tell stories, we need to speak,” he says. “Both for the artist and for the recipient of the art – the audience, the observer, the listener – I think it’s very cathartic and it does what many other things cannot, which is to remind us that we’re human and that we can feel,” he says. “So much is art – art is even the way a meal is prepared; it’s just this notion that human beings can create beautiful things. Even a surgeon can be an artist if they go about their surgery in an artistic way. Other than the art itself, which is a form of expression, it reminds us that we’re human and that we share the same planet and that somehow, we need to find some form of harmony or dissonance, but either requires us being together.”

The Pianist of Willesden Lane starring Mona Golabek, and adapted and directed by Hershey Felder: Wednesday, April 5 – Sunday, April 9. Westport Country Playhouse, 25 Powers Court. For tickets and more information: westportplayhouse.org/pianist, (203) 227-4177.

CAP: Hershey Felder, behind the scenes of The Pianist of Willesden Lane.

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