"It's an amazing story of luck," Jane Pesci-Townsend says of her incredible journey from February to now. The 45-year-old singer-actress has been a witty and lush vocal presence on stages from Signature Theatre to the Kennedy Center, where two years ago she went on for an ailing Christine Baranski in "Sweeney Todd" and wowed 'em.
This year Pesci-Townsend was the one ailing. But just three months after surgery for kidney cancer, she now can be seen on Round House Theatre's Bethesda stage singing songs by the Broadway team of John Kander and Fred Ebb in "The World Goes 'Round" through July 3. The doctors give her an excellent prognosis, she says.
But there's more. Her incision became severely infected and after it finally healed, she ruptured a disk in her neck, requiring surgery to fuse two vertebrae. Even before the neck business, she says she told Round House, "Clearly, get me a good understudy . . . [but] do not count me out."
She later told Artistic Director Jerry Whiddon, "I feel like I'm supposed to be doing 'World Goes 'Round' . . . I was crying and Jerry was like, 'Okay, okay, I have a crying actress on my hands.' "
Pesci-Townsend had worries about the effects of the operations on her voice, too. She told the surgeons who operated on her neck, "Look, I just got saved from kidney cancer, people. . . . You cannot take my voice away."
Her voice "sounds terrific . . . not impaired at all," she says, belting numbers like "How Lucky Can You Get." But with those fused neck vertebrae, "I can't look down" -- at least not straight down -- and her dance moves are less than confident. She does glide around, a little tentatively, on a two-wheeled scooter and play the banjo.
She had plenty of support from her husband, children, theater friends, students and fellow faculty at Catholic University's drama department. But ever the trouper, "the whole time, I kept saying I just want to get back onstage." She finds it appropriate that the songs in "The World Goes 'Round" are about keeping on, about life being, as her recent experience has shown, "one freakin' thing after another."
The show has been "physically hard," Pesci-Townsend says, but it gave her "the intellectual and emotional motivation that I needed . . . just to get back up and feel like myself again, to do what I do, after all of that."
Lypsinka, Beneath the Makeup
Two years ago, John Epperson was feeling a little trapped by the success of Lypsinka, his glamorous New York stage persona. He was then at Studio Theatre, performing "Lypsinka: The Boxed Set."
He's back with "Lypsinka! As I Lay Lip-Synching," but this time he's taking a mid-run break from miming and moving in high drag through an audio montage of songs belted and purred by Broadway babes like Ethel Merman and Eartha Kitt.
"Lypsinka!" is on hiatus this week while Epperson plays himself in the autobiographical "Show Trash" at Studio. One can picture Lypsinka's look of utter horror at Epperson's contemporary casual wardrobe of gauzy plaid shirts and dark jeans, but she'll just have to box her wig and eyelashes and chill.
The 49-year-old Mississippi native, a slender man with reddish-blond hair, a Southern lilt and a surprisingly shy manner, sits at a piano, sings tunes such as Stephen Sondheim's "Anyone Can Whistle" in a lyric baritone reminiscent of Bobby Short and talks about his life, which included a stint as rehearsal pianist for American Ballet Theatre.
"Anyone Can Whistle," a song about learning to let go, signifies that "it's not so easy to take off the mask without anything between me and the audience -- to be that simple," Epperson says. In "Show Trash" patter, he recounts how his Lypsinka identity grew out of "fear and desire -- desire to be onstage, but [fear] to be just who I am -- show trash."
Epperson came to New York to be in musical theater but was petrified to audition and wound up accompanying dancers at ABT for 13 years, then cloaked his career in Lypsinka. "I don't often get asked to audition for roles because people think I can't talk," he says.
"Show Trash" was born as an experiment in 1997. "Barbra Streisand had to prove she could be a director. . . . I realized I've got to make a new show. . . . Now they'll all know I can talk," Epperson reasoned.
His expanded "Show Trash" continues through Sunday, with additional performances June 27 and July 2. "As I Lay Lip-Synching" will return June 26-July 3.
On Monday, Epperson will give a benefit reading for Whitman-Walker Clinic of his southern Gothic version of "Medea," titled "My Deah," followed by a quick trip to London to perform "Boxed Set" in a show sponsored by that shrinking violet and big Lypsinka fan, Morrissey.
* Ford's Theatre has announced that Andrea Martin will play Dolly Levi in its revival of Thornton Wilder's "The Matchmaker" (Sept. 24-Oct. 24). Martin, best known for her comic work on "SCTV" and as the aunt in "My Big Fat Greek Wedding," has earned strong reviews for her recent turn in Tennessee Williams's "The Rose Tattoo" in Boston.
* Signature Theatre has cast Judy Kuhn, who played Fosca in "Passion" at the Kennedy Center two years ago, as the female lead in "The Highest Yellow" (Oct. 26-Dec. 12), a new musical about van Gogh by Michael John LaChiusa and John Strand. Florence Lacey, recently in "Follies" there, will appear in the premiere of "One Red Flower" (Aug. 17-Oct. 3).
* Broadway performer Douglas Sills will play Macbeth opposite Kelly McGillis's Lady M. at the Shakespeare Theatre Aug. 31-Oct. 24. Sills, who earned many nominations for "The Scarlet Pimpernel" and has multiple credits from the California Shakespeare Festival, is now on Broadway in "Little Shop of Horrors."
John Epperson sends his Lypsinka character offstage for his new "Show Trash."