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A Local Life: Jane Pesci-Townsend, 51

Jane Pesci-Townsend known for 'monumental, spiritual, majestic voice'

Musical theater performer Jane Pesci-Townsend was nominated for four Helen Hayes awards.
Musical theater performer Jane Pesci-Townsend was nominated for four Helen Hayes awards.
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By Matt Schudel
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, August 22, 2010

For years, Jane Pesci-Townsend taught a required course for first-year musical theater students at Catholic University. The course was called "body movement," but that suggested only the barest outline of what Ms. Pesci-Townsend brought to the classroom.

She taught students how to sit in a chair, how to move across a stage and how to interact with other actors, but those theatrical basics were not what made the class so memorable. On the very first day of each new school year, before her students had even learned their way around campus, Ms. Pesci-Townsend delivered a performance that left them gaping in awe.

In her powerful mezzo-soprano voice, she would sing "Unusual Way," from the Broadway musical "Nine." It wasn't just her phrasing or diction that impressed the students: It was the way she inhabited the song, the way it became a vessel for acting, storytelling and connecting with the human heart.

Many of Ms. Pesci-Townsend's students recall the body movement class -- and her performance of "Unusual Way," in particular -- as nothing less than a life-changing experience.

"It felt like she was a force of nature in the room, like she had her own gravity," said Dunbar Dicks, who went to Catholic because of her. "She had a rare combination of gifts. She was forceful and empathetic, a performer and a teacher."

Ms. Pesci-Townsend, who died Aug. 6 at her home in Wheaton after a six-year battle with kidney cancer, spent all of her 51 years near Washington. Besides teaching, she appeared in dozens of plays and musical revues, was an unforgettable cabaret singer and directed productions at theaters throughout the region.

"She was such a phenomenal performer," said N. Thomas Pedersen, who co-chaired the musical theater department at Catholic with Ms. Pesci-Townsend. "She was funny, poignant and had a voice like no one else."

She first gained attention in the 1980s in a satirical revue called "Mrs. Foggybottom and Friends," in which her bawdy, over-the-top performance of a song called "Pheromones" invariably brought the house down. In the 1990s, she and Dori Legg appeared in another popular revue, "Parallel Lives."

"From the first note out of Jane Pesci-Townsend's mouth," critic Pamela Sommers wrote in The Washington Post in 1997, "I began wondering why this mega-talented performer isn't a major player on local or national stages."

Over the years, Ms. Pesci-Townsend was nominated four times for Helen Hayes awards, the Washington area's top theater honors, but she never left her hometown to try her luck in New York.

"That was a conscious choice," said Brad Watkins, producing director at the Olney Theatre and a longtime friend. "She had opportunities galore to go to New York. Jane knew early on that she wanted a home and a family."

She was married for 21 years to Kevin Townsend and had two children, George and Rosemary Townsend, all of Wheaton. Other survivors include her parents, Frank and Dorothy Pesci of Crofton; three sisters, Cecilia Finstad of Severna Park, Barbara Rosenberg of Foster City, Calif., and Marianna Judy of Silver Spring; and two brothers, James Pesci of Leesburg and Frank Pesci Jr. of Boston.

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