Backstage: A tribute to Jane Pesci-Townsend at Catholic U.; 'Art' at Signature

Singer, actress and teacher Jane Pesci-Townsend died in August.
Singer, actress and teacher Jane Pesci-Townsend died in August.
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By Jane Horwitz
Thursday, March 17, 2011; 12:35 AM

Friends, family and theater fans who attend Monday's "musical tribute" to the late Jane Pesci-Townsend at Catholic University's Hartke Theatre at 7 p.m. will be as likely to laugh and applaud as to weep.

The singer, actress and teacher, who died in August of renal cancer at age 51, was a popular musical theater and cabaret performer in Washington as well as a teacher in Catholic's musical theater program. She struggled with her illness for years and was dubbed "the warrior" by doctors at the National Institutes of Health who treated her.

Tom Pedersen of Catholic, who now leads the department she chaired, planned the memorial. "She was kind of a special force . . . the heartbeat, really the heartbeat, of that department," he says.

Pesci-Townsend taught a freshman course that instructed young performers how to sing a song. "She really taught them about being people . . . so they could be genuine as performers. You have to know who you are as a person. And she could bring that out better than anybody I've known."

Broadway baritone Norm Lewis is flying in from London, where he plays the villain Javert in "Les Miserables," to sing at Pesci-Townsend's memorial. They met in 1989 in an Atlantic City production of "A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum" and became friends, bonding offstage over "beer and Ding Dongs."

"There are always people that will stay in your life [as a] constant, and Jane was definitely one of those," Lewis says. "She's gone physically, but her laughter and her jokes and her arms around me and all that stuff is still in my memory." As a performer, he says, Pesci-Townsend "could go from [the] comedic, funny, big woman that everyone wants to hear, with this big voice, but she could turn into this sexy vixen [and] could hit you deeply with something that was very vulnerable. . . . She had all of that."

Eleasha Gamble, who played Laurey in Arena Stage's revival of "Oklahoma!" last fall, was a student of Pesci-Townsend's and also her colleague in a cabaret at Signature Theatre. Gamble says Pesci-Townsend taught her "how to not use my voice as a weapon. . . . Just because I can sing loud doesn't mean that I have to sing at 110 percent and completely blow myself out. . . . I learned definitely how to be more nuanced in what I did."

Gamble recalls that Pesci-Townsend did double duty as teacher and mentor. "As much time as we spent singing and doing repertoire, there would be times that you would just go in her office and just talk about your life and vent. It wasn't just about voice lessons. It was also about her making sure you were okay in your life."

Singer-turned-architect Pedro Porro met Pesci-Townsend in Arena Stage's 1991 production of "She Stoops to Conquer." "What I remember is just the enormity of her presence, the enormity of her laughter, her passion, her commitment, her loyalty, her drive, her voice. Everything about Jane was just so much larger than life, you couldn't help but be awed by her."

Kevin Townsend says he thinks people will walk away from the memorial with a sense of his wife's "dedication to family. . . . Family was a big concept to her, whether it would be blood, or people she would meet in a show, or kids she would teach. . . . It was like this whole connection she had with everybody. She had such a big personality. She made everyone feel important. She just took everyone in her wake."

The heart of 'Art'

The French play "Art" by Yasmina Reza, which made its Broadway debut in 1998, has been dismissed as fluff and boneheaded about modern art.

But the director and actors rehearsing the play at Signature Theatre, where it will run March 29 to May 22 in the intimate Ark space, disagree with that assessment.


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