March 27, 2012
By Tom Tugend
Hershey Felder is a prolific performer, writer and composer, but he is setting a new personal record with world premieres of two plays at different Los Angeles venues.
Best known as the piano-playing alter ego of George Gershwin, Leonard Bernstein and Frederic Chopin, Felder is exploring new territories in both productions
He is currently on stage at the Pasadena Playhouse in “Lincoln – An American Story,” tripling as author, symphonic composer and solo actor.
Felder portrays Dr. Charles Leale, an actual, though largely unknown, historical figure. Leale, then a 23-year old army surgeon, was at the Ford’s Theatre on the night Lincoln was assassinated and rushed to the stricken president’s side.
Across the mountains at the Geffen Playhouse in Westwood, Felder, staying for once behind the scenes, is the adapter and director of “The Pianist of Willesden Lane,” with previews starting April 17.
Concert pianist Mona Golabek is the solo performer of the show, which, like “Lincoln,” is taken from life, but in a vastly different time and setting.
Golabek portrays her own mother, Lisa Jura, who inherited her musical virtuosity from her own mother and, in turn, passed it on to her daughter.
A gifted young Jewish pianist in Vienna, Lisa was sent by her parents to safety on a Kindertransport to England, following the Nazi takeover of Austria in 1938.
There she found shelter, along with 30 other young Jewish refugees, in a Quaker-run hostel on Willesden Lane, all enduring intense German aerial bombardment during the London Blitz.
Golabek wrote of her mother’s travails and musical triumphs in her book “The Children of Willesden Lane” (with Lee Cohen), on which the show is based.
But the real message of the play is the power of music to uplift our spirits in the darkest of times, Golabek observed during an interview at the Geffen Playhouse, and her performance is permeated with some of the world’s most enduring piano compositions.
Unlike many survivors of the Holocaust era who never spoke about their experiences with their children, Lisa Jura shared her stories freely with her daughters Mona and Renee.
“My mother would be giving us piano lessons and suddenly a passage would remind her of some childhood event, and she would talk about it,” Golabek said.
One such incident was Lisa’s heartbreaking separation from her family at the Vienna train station in 1938, when her mother’s final words to her were, “Hold on to your music; it will be your best friend.”
The advice has become the family’s leitmotif through succeeding generations and is perpetuated in their Hold On To Your Music Foundation. There is one other dimension to Golabek’s performance. “My role allows me to pay homage to my parents,” she said. “How many people ever get that opportunity?”
After the war, the family moved to Los Angeles, where Mona was born and grew up to become an internationally acclaimed concert pianist. Her honors include the Avery Fisher Prize and the People’s Award of the International Chopin Competition.
She, in turn, is passing on the legacy to her late sister’s four children, of whom Michelle, Sarah and Rachel are pianists, and Jonathan is a violinist.
Golabek met Felder three years ago, while he was performing at the Geffen Playhouse, and she asked him whether the story of her mother could be transferred to the stage.
Felder said yes, wrote the adaptation, and for the last few weeks has been in rehearsal with Golabek. At the same time, he has been performing nightly at the Pasadena Playhouse, first in “Monsieur Chopin,” then “Maestro: The Art of Leonard Bernstein,” and is now appearing in “Lincoln.” Joel Zwick (“My Big Fat Greek Wedding”) is the director of all three plays.
Felder juggles his responsibilities “by performing in the evening and preparing for the next show during the day,” squeezed into a daily 7:30 a.m. to 1 a.m. schedule, he said during a phone interview.
Turning to the Lincoln play, he noted that Leale, the young surgeon who rushed to Lincoln’s side, talked about his historic encounter only once, during a convivial evening 44 years later.
“This is a fascinating story about what can happen to an ordinary man who is suddenly thrust into a historical event,” Felder said. “Lincoln” also features Felder’s symphonic compositions, performed by a 45-piece orchestra.
As to his role as behind-the-scenes director of “The Pianist of Willesden Lane,” Felder said that his friends are so used to seeing him at the center of the stage action, “that they suspect I may be playing Mona’s role in drag.”
His next project will be set in Paris, where Felder, when not on the road, lives with his wife, Kim Campbell, a former Canadian prime minister.
“Lincoln” is playing at the Pasadena Playhouse through April 7. For tickets and information, call (626) 921-1161, or check http://www.pasadenaplayhouse.org.
“The Pianist of Willesden Lane” will be at the Audrey Skirball Kenis Theatre of the Geffen Playhouse, with previews starting April 17. The official opening night is April 25, and closing night May 27. For tickets and information, phone (310) 208-5454, or visit http://www.geffenplayhouse.com.
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