Sunday, August 8, 2010

No Time At All

The DC area's Musical Theatre Marquee has lost two of its brightest lights in recent days.

Darin Ellis

I did not know Darin, but surely would have bumped into this big guy with the big voice sooner or later. He was one of the region's up-and-coming talents, having trained at Marshall University in West Virginia, and with Signature Theatre's Overtures program. He participated in the Signature Sings cabaret series, and seemed poised to become a regular player there. Around town he performed with Adventure Theatre and spent a season doing dinner theatre at Montgomery College. Earlier this year, he received nice notices in Treemonisha with the Washington Savoyards, and only a few days before his death, he appeared at the Capitol Fringe Festival, in Assembly Required: How to Write, Produce and Stage a Musical – the Musical.

Darin was only 24 when he died from congestive heart failure July 22. A memorial celebration has been planned for Monday evening at Signature Theatre.

Jane Pesci-Townsend


Jane was really too young to be called a "legend," but the profile fits. As co-chair of the Musical Theatre Dept at Catholic University, she has trained a thousand students and more, according to her dean (go here for CUA's memorial to her). Additionally, she was an integral part of Theatre Lab's musical training wing, and was a director of note as well, delivering The Last Five Years for MetroStage, along with countless offerings at Catholic and at Theatre Lab.

But I knew Jane as a performer, as did so many folks in the DC area. After training at the University of Maryland, she launched a professional career which included appearances all over town. By the time I arrived in DC in the mid-90s, she had already won two of her four Helen Hayes Award nominations, for Closer Than Ever with the Rose Organization, and, coincidentally, for her long-running gig with The Revenge of Mrs. Foggybottom, a musical satirical review which ran for years at the Omni-Shoreham (that is a coincidence because one of my first professional jobs in DC was as a member of the Mrs. Foggybottom troupe, though Jane had long since moved on). Here's a swell clip of Jane's expertise with a song, and with an audience:

2002 was a particularly successful year for Jane, as she performed the neat trick of earning Hayes noms for both Leading and Supporting Actress. She played Ruth in The Pirates of Penzance at the Folger, back when Interact Theatre Company performed there, and the same year, she belted the Carol Burnett track in Putting it Together at Signature (in that one, she played opposite my Interact buddy Bob McDonald).

But that was just the beginning of Jane's year. Her involvement with the Kennedy Center's starry production of Sweeney Todd in 2002 has become theatrical legend in DC. She was hired to stand-by for Christine Baranski, and when the star came down with some flu or something, she stepped into the huge role of Mrs. Lovett. Imagine how disconcerting it must be to hear audible groans of disappointment from the audience when such an announcement is made. But the Washington Post and the Wall Street Journal were both in the audience that night, and gave Jane raves; they loved the fact that she made a masterful recovery from a faux pas in her first number, "The Worst Pies in London." From that moment on, she had the audience in her hands. She apparently aced that monster which closes Act I, "A Little Priest," the most lyrically challenging song in the show. (May I sidetrack a bit? Of course I may. That number must be a nightmare for the actresses playing Mrs. Lovett, as it's a 7-minute song consisting of one long list, there is really no logic to it. Jane's frequent co-star, Sheri Edelen, fumbled the lyric the day I saw her in this year's Sweeney Todd, and like Jane, she made a hilarious recovery. Even the role's originator, the great Angela Lansbury, reversed two of the lyrics, an error which is preserved on the original cast recording!)

OK, back to Jane. She would forgive the digression, she loved all things musical. I did not see Jane's successfully stepping into Sweeney, but there is a rogue video of that triumphant night floating around; go here to catch just a peek of our gal, opposite the Sweeney of Brian Stokes Mitchell. I did catch Jane in two musicals at Round House.

She delivered what may be the most robust rendition of the grandmother's song, "No Time At All," in the entire history of Pippin, and her appearance in The World Goes 'Round was against all odds; it was around this time that she was diagnosed with the kidney cancer which she bravely battled for the next six years. She also needed some neck surgery at this time, so her game efforts to conquer the choreography were doubly impressive, considering she performed one number on a scooter.

As far as I can tell, The World Goes 'Round was Jane's last appearance in a full professional production. As her health deteriorated, she turned more of her energies to her teaching and directing career. Her dean at Catholic reports that her influence has turned the BM degree in Musical Theatre at CUA into one of the most prestigious in the nation. I don't doubt it. Jane's Facebook page is full of testimonials to her teaching and mentoring skills. Her influence will be felt well into the next generation of musical theatre performers.

But I bet I will always remember Jane from the first time I ever saw her. 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 zoftig 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."

Jane passed away Friday at the age of 51.