Seated at a crowded table at the distinctly un-nightclublike Jewish Community Center of Greater Washington in Rockville--the setting for Washington Jewish Theatre's "A Century of Musical Theatre: From Ragtime to 'Ragtime' "--I was certainly not prepared for a revelation. But from the first note out of Jane Pesci-Townsend's mouth, the WJC became an intimate nightclub and I began wondering why this mega-talented performer isn't a major player on local or national stages.

Pesci-Townsend, an ample woman with an oval face and rosebud lips, can one moment call to mind Bette Midler, then blast through Cole Porter's "Blow, Gabriel, Blow" a la Ethel Merman, and then bring tears to your eyes with a tender rendition of Jerome Kern's "Bill." She also does a great Adelaide from "Guys and Dolls" and a steamroller of a Mama Rose from "Gypsy," and she exhibits a fine understanding of the neurotic nuances of Stephen Sondheim.

Pesci-Townsend is certainly the primary reason to see this mini-history of American musical theater, cleverly put together by Stephen Randoy (who serves as pianist and occasional singer as well) and intelligently directed by Steven Cupo. Pesci-Townsend's fellow performers, the irrepressible shticky tenor John J. Kaczynski and the dulcet-voiced but rather stiff soprano Nanette Savard, do a perfectly respectable job with their numbers--everything from Sigmund Romberg to "Rent"--but there is visible effort behind their work. With Pesci-Townsend, it all just flows.

Bassist Cyndy Elliot and drummer Vin Novara provide first-rate backup to Randoy's expert piano.

A Century of Musical Theatre: From Ragtime to "Ragtime." Conceived and written by Stephen Randoy. Sunday at 5 p.m., Tuesday at 7:30 p.m. and Thursday at 1 p.m. at the Gildenhorn-Speisman Center for the Arts, Rockville. Call 301-230-3775.

CAPTION: Stephen Randoy, creator of the Rockville JCC's "A Century of Musical Theatre."