Jane Pesci-Townsend, an old-school musical belter who won accolades as an actor, singer, director and teacher, lost her six-year battle with cancer on August 6, 2010. She passed away peacefully at home, surrounded by her family, close friends and nearly a thousand Facebook messages, which her companions read to her during her intermittent periods of consciousness in her last days.
Pesci-Townsend was fifty-one.
Her family has arranged for viewings from 2pm – 4pm and from 7pm – 9pm on Wednesday, August 11th at Collins Funeral Home, 500 University Blvd. West, Silver Springs, MD, according to her Catholic University Musical Theater Co-Chair, Tom Pedersen. Her funeral mass will be celebrated at St. Catherine LaBourè, 11801 Claridge Road (corner of Viers Mill) in Wheaton on Thursday the 12th, at 11 a.m. Interment will be private but Catholic University will be staging a musical tribute to Pesci-Townsend later in the year, Pedersen said.
The family has asked that in lieu of flowers, friends and admirers send a contribution to Catholic University for a scholarship in Pesci-Townsend’s name. Donors should send their contributions to the Benjamin P. Rome School of Music at Catholic University, with instructions that the funds be used for this scholarship.
Jane Pesci-Townsend was born in Prince George’s County, Maryland, the daughter of Dr. Frank Pesci, Sr., a Catholic University Professor of Education, and Dorothy Pesci, a nurse. The family was given to music, and Jane developed a particular expertise on the bass. After receiving her undergraduate degree from the University of Maryland, she paid her dues on the dinner theater circuit. She was a regular at the Colony 7 Dinner Theatre in Maryland until her performance in the 1989 revue, The Revenge of Mrs. Foggybottom, won her the first of her four Helen Hayes nominations. Thereafter, she became one of the Washington region’s most sought-after musical theater stars, whose powerful voice and laser-like comic timing stunned and delighted audiences for fifteen years.
In addition to her nomination for The Revenge of Mrs. Foggybottom, she received nominations for Outstanding Lead Actress in 1993 for Closer Than Ever and in 2002 for Putting It Together as well as for Outstanding Supporting Actress for The Pirates of Penzance or The Picaroons of the Potomac!, but the performance most people remember Pesci-Townsend for is the one she put on when she stepped in for Christine Baranski to play Mrs. Lovett to Brian Stokes Mitchell’s Sweeney Todd at the Kennedy Center in 2002.
Joe Brown, the former theater critic for the Washington Post’s Weekend section, recounted the evening in his Facebook tribute to Pesci-Townsend:
“[I] knew the audience, full of Sondheim ‘cultists,’ would be picky,” he wrote. “She won all those people over — all the whisperers. This was not an understudy thing, this was a full-on performance. . . . She was getting all her laughs and she looked completely rooted in the part. She didn’t show any fear. . . . She nailed it.
“The actress said she got final word she would go on only around midafternoon Friday.” Brown continued “She began running lines and rehearsing at 3:30. Mitchell, who plays the title character, came in at 4:30 to work with her…
“Mrs. Lovett’s droll opening number, ‘The Worst Pies in London,’ features complex rhythmic interplay between pie-making and singing. ‘I never ran that number with the props – with real dough and flour and the rolling pin. The first time I ever did it in my life was out there,’ Pesci-Townsend said. ‘It’s the kind of thing that theater stories are made of. And was I nervous? If I stopped and thought about what was going to happen — I just tried not to think about it.’ …”
Shows which featured Pesci-Townsend tended to be joyous affairs, with friends as castmates and castmates becoming friends. MetroStage Artistic Director Carolyn Griffin recalls one of her performances in particular: “Jane first appeared at MetroStage in 1994 with her good friend Dori Legg in Parallel Lives (the Kathy and Mo Show) directed by another good friend, Brad van Grack – that hilarious role so fit her personality.” Griffin added, “Jane was truly the most honest, genuine and generous person I have ever known. Her insight, whether as an artist or director, was unsurpassed. She could be the funniest woman on stage and at the next moment, break your heart. That can only come from absolute honesty and vulnerability.”
In 2004, she appeared in Round House Theatre’s production of the Kander and Ebb revue, The World Goes Round – an act of indomitable courage, seeing as Pesci-Townsend had undergone surgery for kidney cancer eight weeks previously, followed immediately by a second surgery which fused two of her vertebrae which made it impossible for her to look down, thus complicating the portion of the show in which she rode a scooter.
Her worsening medical condition, however, led her to graduate from performance to directing…a role which underscored her gifts as a teacher. “When she came back to direct The Last Five Years, it was with former students Mark Bush and Tracy Olivera and she brought in a budding young director, Matt Gardner, as her assistant director,” Griffin notes. Olivera is a now a musical theater performer who made her Broadway debut in Ragtime in 2009 and teaches at Catholic University and Gardiner is now Resident Director at Signature. Bush helped organize the Facebook response to Pesci-Townsend.
When she joined the faculty at Catholic University, she had an immediate impact. Music school Dean Grayson Wagstaff observed, “She had a way to make each person feel that they were uniquely important in her presence….More than anything else, she believed in our students, investing them with dignity and confidence to accomplish things that the students might have thought impossible.”
Pesci-Townsend’s collegiality helped her to Co-Chair Catholic’s Musical Theater department with Pedersen – an arrangement that others might find uncomfortable. “We did a lot of things together – the auditioning of the students, for example – and we sat on the juries together when the kids came for their recitals….We talked every day about the issues driving the school,” Pedersen said. Nonetheless, there was a division of labor. “We’d each do the things that we did well. I sort of handled all the production things and she handled all the curriculum…setting up the kids’ recitals. She handled the academic things and, really, the care of the students. Jane was the heartbeat of the program, and I was a facilitator…We were just a great team. We loved working together whether it was shows or running the department .”
Her biggest impact, Pedersen said, was on her students. “Every year she taught the freshman workshop, which is called Body Movement,” Pedersen said. “It was kind of a life-changing class for many of the kids – it’s where they learned to act a song, break it down musically. She took each individual student and broke through their barriers, their inhibitions, and put them on their way to being great artists. She brought out their artistic selves…How to sit in a chair properly. How to break down your songs as monologues. She taught kids how to prep their songs – from a technical standpoint and from a musical standpoint. She taught them how to make great art.”
Pesci-Townsend’s profound impact on her students is evident from the tone of many of the responses her Facebook page received. Olivera, writing separately to DCTS, noted “I can only say I am lucky to be able to call her my teacher, my mentor, my colleague, and my friend. She taught me about more than just acting–she taught me about life. And about being a teacher. And a human…. I will miss her laugh most of all.”
While the comments written by her students after and immediately before her death might be expected to be laudatory, they echo the things said by her students under more ordinary circumstances. “Rate My Professors,” a website upon which students could comment anonymously on the quality of their faculty, gave Pesci-Townsend extraordinarily high marks. “The bees knees,” wrote “BodyShiz” on April 13 of this year. “No lies, Jane was the reason i chose Catholic. I had never had a voice teacher or a job before her, and I have been working steadily and happily ever since. Thanks to Jane’s coaching, life in New York is not only possible, but entirely comfortable on just my actor’s salary. Love this woman. She’s a warrior.”
Similarly, “mus201” wrote on the same day, “If i ever win a tony, You can bet JPT will be one of the very first names mentioned. Her Passion for her craft and her students is inspiring.” While not every rater was pleased with her, Pesci-Townsend got the highest possible scores for “clarity” and “helpfulness” from over a third of respondents.
Pesci-Townsend, in her too-brief life, elevated musical theater in Washington to a new, more rarified, level. Pesci-Townsend inspired a new generation of students to exert influence on the shape of American musical theater in the new century. As Pesci-Townsend is being laid to rest, three recent graduates of the Catholic University Musical Theater program are appearing on Broadway.
R. Scott Williams, a local actor who has one of the most literate and interesting inside-theater blogs in Washington, was able to identify the piquant taste of irony in his first encounter with this magnificent icon of musical theater.
“I bet I will always remember Jane from the first time I ever saw her,” Williams wrote. “Less than a year after I had arrived in DC, I went to see a buddy put on a dress and play a drag role in Ruthless! The Musical! at Source Theatre. Everyone else in the show was legitimately female, and about half an hour into the proceedings, a zaftig whirlwind of energy exploded into the theatre. Dressed to the nines and with a belt which shook the ceiling, this was my first glimpse of Jane Pesci-Townsend. It was not the biggest role in Ruthless, but her dynamic rendition of her big number tore the roof off the joint. In retrospect, it was comically ironic. This teacher/mentor/coach of a generation of musical theatre actors stopped the show cold, with a song called ‘I Hate Musicals.’”
Pesci-Townsend leaves a husband, Kevin, and two children, Rosemary and George. Her parents and five siblings also survive her. Her nephew Jean Finstad, also an Upright bass player with the Justin Trawick Group, said on his Facebook page “As a family member, she was someone you could always turn to for an ear to talk to, a hand to guide you through a tough time, and a shoulder to cry on. She meant so so much to all of us and she will be greatly missed. There is nothing more to say other than I LOVE YOU and do your thing in heaven!”
(Some information for this article came from an article on Potomac Stages in 2005.)