‘The Pianist of Willesden Lane’ and ‘The Overview Effect’: Solo flights

A pair of theater and music combinations aim high but don't always run deep

Lisa Jura was an amazing woman. In the wake of the Nazis’ horrific November 1938 Kristallnacht pogrom, her Viennese parents sent her to relative safety in England as part of the Kindertransport program that saved thousands of children’s lives. The teenaged piano prodigy, who knew no one in England and brought only a single suitcase with some clothes and sheet music, survived a Blitz bombing that leveled the overcrowded London home for Jewish refugees she’d talked her way into. She took a job at a garment factory sewing soldiers’ uniforms, then leveraged her pianistic skills into a scholarship at the nation’s most prestigious music school before moving to America and eventually having a daughter who became a concert pianist herself.

That daughter, Mona Golabek, stars in the one-woman tribute to her indomitable mother, The Pianist of Willesden Lane, which runs through May 1 at Portland Center Stage. Directed and adapted from Golabek’s book, The Children of Willesden Lane (written with Lee Cohen), by the veteran composer/ performer/ theater artist Hershey Felder, the production achieves Golabek’s primary goals: making audiences appreciate her mother’s extraordinary story, and raising funds and attention for her admirable educational foundation.

Mona Golabek stars in 'The Pianist of Willesden Lane' at Portland Center Stage. Photo: Patrick Weishampel/ blankeye.tv.

Mona Golabek stars in ‘The Pianist of Willesden Lane’ at Portland Center Stage. Photo: Patrick Weishampel/ blankeye.tv.

What the show, which features Golabek as narrator and pianist, does not do is add much emotional depth or understanding to this lesser known but important chapter of the story of humanity’s greatest horror.

After a brief intro in her own persona, Golabek (now in the character of her mother) transports us to the moment in 1938 when the 14 year old Jura’s piano lessons are interrupted by new Nazi laws banning Jews from taking them. When Kristallnacht erupts, her father wins a single ticket for the Kindertransport, which the family decides to give to Jura, leaving her parents and sisters behind.

The scene shifts to England, where Jura first is placed in a rural home (part of the evacuation of city children chronicled in John Boorman’s film Hope and Glory), then moves to London, when she willfully rebels against the strict country house rules that forbid her to play the piano. From there, Golabek (alternately playing her mother and a lovely Steinway concert grand provided by Michelle’s Piano Company) gives a smooth first person account of her mother’s story that’s so convincing I sometimes forgot she wasn’t Jura.

Admittedly not a professional actor, Golabek (who took acting lessons for this production) nonetheless makes an engaging host and narrator, confidently holding the stage for 90 minutes, never audibly missing a cue, a line, or an important note of the interpolated piano passages, all judiciously excerpted from music (by Grieg, Chopin, Scriabin, Bach, Rachmaninoff, Debussy, etc.) Jura played in lessons or recitals, plus a couple of pop numbers she played during a nightclub gig entertaining Allied soldiers. A solid if not especially exciting interpreter here, Golabek never gets to play more than a couple of minutes at a time until the end. Wise choice: the music is there to support the story. Don’t go expecting a concert.

Nor much emotional depth. However deeply her mother’s inspiring story resonates with Golabek, she delivers merely a polished recounting, rather than an emotionally involving enactment of an undoubtedly compelling real-life story. We find out what happened, we admire Jura’s pluck, but we rarely feel the fear, guilt (at escaping), stirrings of first love, hope and all the other emotions that Jura must have experienced. Merely telling us that Jura was worried about her family doesn’t substitute for showing that fear in conversations with other characters.

It may be that like many determined survivors of such horrors (including my own father, who endured World War II Japanese prison camps), Jura  told her daughter only the facts and emphasized her can-do attitude, protecting her (and maybe even Jura herself) from the searing emotions that accompanied them. It would be challenging though by no means impossible for even a skilled actor to convey them in a one-woman show. And plunging deeply into such feelings certainly runs the risk of sentimentality and bathos, which this production commendably avoids, though at the cost of avoiding much drama of any kind, melo- or otherwise. Except for a few powerful moments, including a sweet reveal at the end that still packs a punch despite the fact that you see it coming from across Burnside, I usually felt as though I were observing the action from above rather than experiencing it from within.

Despite the script’s emotional detachment, the audience repaid Golabek’s assured, heartfelt performance with an immediate warm, standing ovation, which she and the excellent production (including spare, deft lighting and sound design) deserve. Except for the piano, the only props are giant gilt frames (like the kind you’d imagine enclosing portraits in a middle class 1938 Viennese home) looming over the action and displaying projected films and stills of Kristallnacht, pre-war Vienna and mid-war London, photos of Jura’s family members, and other well chosen complementary imagery. Props, too, to the printed program’s capsule history of Kristallnacht and the Kindertransport, and online resource guide which concisely provides needed context.

Though The Pianist of Willesden Lane reminded me of those high-minded Oscar winning movies that we all feel good about having seen (while not really feeling compelled to see again), it nonetheless provides an enlightening glimpse into this corner of the Holocaust, and left me full of admiration for its subject, its performer and her continuing cause. To that extent, Golabek’s mission will be for many viewers a success.

The Pianist of Willesden Lane continues through May 1 at Portland Center Stage, 128 NW 11th Ave. Portland. Tickets are available online and at 503-445-3700.

Star Trek

Space: the final frontier. This is the maiden voyage of Tylor Neist’s The Overview Effect, which runs through April 23 at Portland Center Stage. Its mission: “to simulate the overview effect here on earth.”

Downstairs from Willesden Lane at Portland Center Stage, Portland composer/actor Neist’s theater piece uses music, projected imagery and narrative to stimulate the shift in perspective reported by many astronauts. When they gaze down upon our suddenly fragile-looking home planet, and see all of humanity and its history in the context of an unimaginably vast universe, our manifold conflicts (with each other and with the planet that nourishes us) recede into insignificance.

Seeing this admirably ambitious show may or may not inspire anyone to redouble our efforts to save the planet and overcome human conflict. But for anyone who remembers America’s original space program, the projected footage from those early missions and recent celestial video imagery from the Hubble Space Station — literally the stars of the show — will certainly evoke the sense of wonder that so enthralled so many of us, including Neist himself, as he told ArtsWatch.

Tylor Neist conducts Bridgetown Orchestra in 'The Overview Effect."

Tylor Neist conducts Bridgetown Orchestra in ‘The Overview Effect.”

Neist’s colorful score nicely complements those images. As he told ArtsWatch, fans of movie soundtracks will likely enjoy this one, although like most, it has moments that feel derivative or melodramatic, even bombastic. Accompanying some of the trippiest, most spectacular sights in the universe understandably leads to a striving for grandeur. The impressive variety — a touch of minimalism here, swirling dissonances there, expansive and triumphant eruptions elsewhere — allows the music to securely suit each visual sequence, with some moments of real beauty. Neist animatedly conducts from several stations, the better to vary the audience’s viewscape, and the 12-member chamber orchestra delivered his music, precisely synched with the onscreen action, with comparable precision and occasional panache, with individual members occasionally even chipping in some Greek-chorus style responses. The handsome production, tight pacing and obvious consideration for the audience’s attention add up to an often exhilarating ride.

The narrative component, alas, doesn’t work so well. At several junctures, conductor Neist leaves his music stands to become a narrator who, brandishing tomes scattered around what appears to be a study/ workshop, briefly expounds on subjects like the history of human interest in the heavens (from Pythagoras through Copernicus to Galileo) and raises questions like “Why are we here?” An experienced actor with a real sense of stage presence, Neist’s intense, intentionally affected delivery and wise decision to keep these interludes no more than a minute or so long (amounting to maybe 10 minutes total, or so it felt) avoids lecture-like tedium and prevents the pace from flagging, which often happens when program notes are performed onstage.

But with so little time devoted to the text, we don’t really learn much if anything from it, and the narrative sequences, delivered with minimal props (books, a microscope, some bowls and a crystal on the floor) don’t really advance the action. Neist has obviously lavished considerable research and devotion to the project, but the text’s connections and implications don’t always make it out into the audience. Moreover, although the program notes tell us the show is “inspired by Dr. Edgar Mitchell’s transformative trip to the moon and back,” the character onstage is never identified, and when he asked things like “Why am I here?” I had the same question.

Neist also performs as an actor in 'The Overview Effect.'

Neist also performs as an actor in ‘The Overview Effect.’

Although a show featuring an unidentified character who alternately sounds like he’s arrived from a ‘50s science fiction film, a mid-period Robert Heinlein novel, and an Alan Watts tract might sound a little cheesy, it didn’t come off that way for me and apparently for much the audience in PCS’s intimate Ellyn Bye Studio, who appeared moved at times and dazzled throughout. The production team’s impressive stagecraft creates compelling visual interest, and stage director Roland Rusinek keeps the action moving. Performances are uniformly tight. Neist’s unapologetically un-ironic music and text exude that gee-whiz attitude that fueled humanity’s original space explorers (back before “Space Oddity” and writers like Barry Malzberg or Thomas Disch and others who examined the darker aspects of space exploration), and still drives many today.

As with Willesden Lane, I can imagine a version of The Overview Effect working in a documentary/education context, maybe on a big IMAX screen at Oregon Museum of Science & Industry, or as a discussion starter in schools, though probably with more conventional expository presentation. Neist’s obvious sincere enthusiasm radiates throughout the performance and especially the music. Look elsewhere for deeper exploration of more complex issues related to the final frontier. But if you want a reminder of how it felt to imagine vaulting into the beyond, and how it might again, The Overview Effect takes you on a ride so entertaining that I couldn’t believe it had lasted an entire hour. Even the original Starship Enterprise fell two years short of completing its original five year mission, so this performance might be only the first stage of The Overview Effect’s journey to the stars.

The Overview Effect  runs through April 23 at Portland Center Stage’s Ellyn Bye Studio, 128 NW 11th Ave. Portland. Tickets are available online or at 503–616–9595.

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One Response.

  1. Cynthia says:

    Re: Pianist of Willesden, the music supplied all the
    necessary emotion, played do beautifully; sobbed thru much of our matinee showing.

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