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.)
Tina Palutis says
I am so saddened to hear of Jane’s passing. We only knew each other for a brief time, but she impacted me deeply.
My love & condolences to Kevin, George & Rosemary.
Christopher Marlowe Roche says
Thank you for a wonderful article. Thank you Jane for teaching me to simply say…”thank you”.
Peace and Love.
Ian Clayton says
I fondly remember doing a show with Jane in the mid 70’s, unfortunately I can’t seem to positively remember which one! Actually, I believe it was “Carnival!” with PG County Summer Teen Theater. If I recall correctly, she played the wife of the philandering magician, and gave rousing renditions of “Always, Always You” and “Humming”. I believe she had a (Sister, Cousin?) in the show as well, Laurie maybe? Anyway I do remember her fondly, if not with a great deal of accuracy!
Kathy Kotowski says
In the last paragraph, it says “Her mother also survives her.” She is also survived by her father. [editor: Thank you for letting us know. The change was made.]
Susan Schept says
Thank you for a wonderful, touching tribute to my cousin. Can you please add that Jane is survived by her mother and her father, as well as five siblings? Thank you.
Angela Calo says
I studied with Jane at CUA. She kept me from dropping out of school, kept me from being lazy (or tried to), kept me motivated and engaged, and she made me LOVE what we, as artists, do for others, but most importantly for ourselves. She and I would go to lunch sometimes during our lessons … just to de-stress and talk. We’d sing together just for fun! She volunteered to perform in my Senior Recital with me, as did her brother Frankie. She was an incredible performer, mentor, leader, giver, teacher, director, comedian, and inspiration. She demanded the best out of people. Not by telling them … but by showing them. You wanted to do well for Jane. You wanted to be around her and work hard for her. She didn’t just have students or peers or colleagues … she had deep friendships with SO many of us! I honestly don’t know how she had the time. Jane and I kept in touch over all these years and we spent some really wonderful times together, most recently at NIH after brain surgery. A wonderful day. A day of reflection, of advice, of life lessons and thoughts about it all. Some walks down the hall … some silence while she slept … some inside jokes and yes, some pain. I will forever remember the laughs and the gossip, the heart to heart’s, and the talks about cancer and how she was feeling. I remember one night, outside the music school, in her van, we sat there parked on Harwood … just talking. Talking about the diagnosis. Talking about how scared she was, how life isn’t fair, how maybe this is just another lesson she had to teach people! The lesson of strength and persistence! To be The Warrior! We wondered why? Why her? We cried. We confided. We hugged and held hands. We laughed. We listened to each other. She wanted to know what I was feeling. How all of this would effect others in her life. And I listened to her and how she was feeling. It was the only time I ever saw Jane break down. None of it will ever make sense … for any of us. For anyone battling cancer. But to lose Jane is to lose the guiding light in my own life. I will now have to carry that light forward in her honor … and try and shed as much happiness and joy onto others as she did for all of us. She is and forever will be the Diva Warrior inside of me. I miss her. I love her. I celebrate her.
Thank you for this article and tribute.
Matt J says
Jane Pesci-Townsend was also instrumental in founding the Musical Theatre Institute for Teens at Theatre Lab DC in Gallery Place. Her last show, RENT (continued by Deb Gottesman, Leslie Vincent, and Kurt Boehm), goes up there later this week, from August 12 to 14; tickets are available on the TheatreLab Web page (www.theatrelab.org). It’s sure to be an amazing tribute to her.
Buzz Mauro says
Thanks for a wonderful article about a truly amazing person.
Ted Ying says
My wife and I were fortunate to have had Jane as a teacher in a Theater Lab class years ago. But even though we only took lessons from her over 3 weeks, she still treated us as if we were full-time students. She was always quick to catch our eye, say hello, answer questions and chat whether we caught her off-stage after a performance (such as her wonderful rendition of Berthe in Round House’s PIPPIN) a workshop (we religiously attended each master class that she held at the Signature Open Houses) or wherever. We feel truly honored to have known her even as briefly and tangentially as we did, but she always made us feel warm and welcomed. DC Theater has lost an amazing local talent and force. I feel bad for future students at CUA who will not have the gift of being guided and taught by Jane.
Matthew Vilord says
Jane was my teacher and mentor at CUA and I am deeply saddened to her about her passing. I can not say enough about this lady as she taught me so much about the theatre, performing, singing and myself. It is funny because normally I would say that she is now in a better place. But the way she loved her family, friends, students and life… it is tough to say that! Jane is the perfect example of living life to the fullest!
God bless Jane and enjoy the eternal stage in the sky. Your heavenly performances will live on forever.
Kevin Townsend says
A second viewing at Collins is between 7-9p.m. [Thanks, Kevin, we added this information]
Doug Bowles says
Wonderful article, but one gender mistake. Jean Finstad is Jane’s Nephew. Otherwise, marvelous and a wonderful tribute. [Our apologies. The mistake was corrected. Thanks for letting us know.]
Bob Anthony says
Her finest performance was Buttercup in Gilbert and Sullivan. Pity we lost her but maybe G & S can get to work with her on some heavenly productions.