|Photo: Michael Lamont|
The Pianist of Willesden Lane (at ArtsEmerson through December 16), a memory play performed by well-known pianist Mona Golabek (at left), and drawn from the memoirs of her mother, noted pianist and author Lisa Jura, sounds on paper like a sure thing. Ms. Jura was a Viennese (and Jewish) piano prodigy who escaped the Holocaust on a kindertransport, lost her parents to the death camps, then survived the blitz in London in a house full of other "orphans" (on the eponymous Willesden Lane) - only to eventually triumph in an Albert Hall debut, after which she was wooed (and won) by a Freedom Fighter.
It's a terrific story, and given all that biographical gold, it's hard to believe that adaptor Hershey Felder has managed to spin quite as much dramatic dross from it as he has here. His script is supposedly designed to reveal the way in which music "has the power to help us survive" - and it's actually kind of an objective proof of that thesis; for Golabek's musical talent does, in fact, repeatedly help us endure Felder's turgid dramaturgy.
The evening is styled as a "story told through music" - Ms. Golabek repeatedly turns from a poised recitation of her mother's memoirs to the Steinway parked center stage, to tinkle a virtuosic passage from Beethoven, Chopin, or Grieg (whose Piano Concerto serves as a kind of leitmotif for the evening). We understand that this was her mother's repertoire - it's the world's repertoire - and if only she'd keep playing, we'd be in clover, for Ms. Golabek proves herself an accomplished and deeply musical pianist (a much stronger performer, btw, than Mr. Felder himself, who has starred in several similar vehicles over the years). We don't really get a sense of Golabek's own interpretive personality, I admit, but her takes on Chopin and Bach sounded particularly strong, and her Grieg, though not perhaps distinctive, was always persuasively grand. And of course it's fiendishly difficult; indeed, perhaps the evening's central theatrical gambit is simply the calm with which Ms. Golabek turns from one type of performance (theatrical) to another (musical).
Needless to say, she has been trained as one kind of performer, and not the other - still, this pianist doesn't lack for theatrical presence, and her elegant demeanor is somehow streaked with a survivor's tears; she's actually well-suited to serve as a guide to her mother's travails. But as directed by Mr. Felder (yes, he also directed) the tour proves strangely, actually relentlessly, dull - kind of amazingly dull, in that it's a mix of Oliver Twist on steroids with Anne Frank Plays Albert Hall. The young Ms. Jura brushed against some of the greatest evils of the twentieth century (encountering many endearing eccentrics on the way) - and eventually found herself playing for the heroes who destroyed that evil; and yet Felder's script trudges listlessly from scene to scene, and seems to drain the color out of everything; indeed, it often reads like this: "A handsome young man waved to me from the audience. He said he loved me. He was a Freedom Fighter." (That's a paraphrase, but you get the idea.) We never really get inside the embattled Ms. Jura's head, and never sense her desperate longing for her lost parents, in fact nothing of the special magic of childhood (even under such terrible circumstances) is conjured, and we don't even really feel her music "develop" as she matures in the midst of the firestorm raging around her (the Grieg at the opening of the evening sounds much like the Grieg at the end). This counts as a gigantic missed dramatic opportunity - perhaps the largest in recent memory.
As I said, however, the evening is partially saved by the beauty of Ms. Golabek's playing, and its juxtaposition against heartbreaking visuals by Greg Sowizdrzal and Andrew Wilder: "Clair de lune" shines over Ms. Jura's last glimpses of Vienna's lost Jews; and a gentle "Jesu, Joy of Man's Desiring" echoes with terrible irony over a ruined London. At moments like this, we can sense what The Pianist of Willesden Lane might have been, in the hands of a more talented dramatist and director.