It was worth the trek to Stanford University in Palo Alto, California to see an extremely unique production of Jeanine Tesori’s Violet staged on a moving bus, that ran November 14-17, 2013. Director Sammi Cannold thought of the idea while listening to the cast recording during her freshman year at the prestigious school. Daughter of veteran Broadway producer Dori Berinstein (Legally Blonde, Millie), Cannold realized her love for musical theatre while interning for the Tony Awards. She set out to make Violet happen with fellow classmate Tobin Asher; and they formed At The Fountain Theatricals (aptly named after a song from Marvin Hamlisch’s The Sweet Smell of Success). They quickly received a grant from the foundation ReDesigning Theater. Over the summer, Cannold sat in on the Encores! production of Violet with Jeanine Tesori and Sutton Foster, and after auditions at Stanford, had only seven weeks to stage and organize Violet. The free production would “sell-out” almost immediately.
Walking on to the campus bus to take my seat, the overture is pumped through the P.A. system (as is the rest of the score pre-recorded by musical director Makulumy Alexander-Hills). Actors followed audience members on to the bus, and before we knew it, we were on the Greyhound to Tulsa. The actors proximity to their audience was within inches, so you had no choice but to be immersed. From the opening number when the choreographed bus started moving perfectly on cue, Cannold’s “staging” and the young cast of Violet had me hooked. Creative props were used on-board such as a multi-use suitcase, and a large picture frame served as the television screen young Violet uses to connect with the televangelist she seeks in Tulsa. In the middle of the show, we were escorted off of the bus by Violet staff members (decked out in custom Violet logo gear, no less), and taken to a building on campus where the other scenes took place. An inconspicuous iPod moved from space to space to provide musical accompaniment. Thanks to great accoustics, this actually worked well, for the most part. After the scene at the Preacher’s church, we were taken back on to the bus to close the show. I had never experienced a piece of theatre as immersive as this production of Violet, and was extremely caught off guard by the emotional response it garnered. (I might have teared up a little.)
The sincere performances from the actors radiated into our personal space, as the show was held together with remarkable vocal direction by Weston Gaylord (you can imagine how that might be a challenge). Everything worked. Though, it would take a devoted theater company to take on a commercial run of the show, as logistically, it is a massive challenge (this production took a stage manager with ten coordinators around campus locations to produce).
Cannold is the one to watch here, and deserves an award just for the way she managed to pull the production off so gracefully, let alone the staging and moments that took this story to a new level. There are actually six theatre companies on the Stanford campus, At The Fountain being one of them. Cannold is set to direct Les Miserables at the university’s Memorial Hall, for the Ram’s Head Theatre Co. in the spring, where she hopes to create an equally immersive experience on a larger scale. She’ll be interning with Diane Paulus at A.R.T. this summer, and is already interning with Paulus on the premiere of the National Tour of Porgy and Bess in San Francisco with SHN, and producer Carole Shorenstein-Hays. When asked about career plans Cannold responds quickly saying “I want to be a Broadway director”. As Cannold is the age (19) where most students are still deciding on a major, I asked if she had a back up-plan or another career choice; she responded saying “Well, I originally wanted to be Secretary of Education”, “…of the United States??” I asked. “Umm, yea.” she responds. Then I am reminded: “Oh, right. I’m at Stanford”.
Directed by Sammi Cannold, the cast featured Justine DeSilva (Old Lady/Mabel), Tobin Asher (Preacher), Alec Glassford (Jackson/Wallace Weatherman/Johnson), Ben Laboy (Farmer Karl), Louis Lagalante (Monty), Cayla Pettinato (Young Violet), Robert Poole (Flick), Alex Scott (Hotel Singer), Annie Sherman (Music Hall/Lula), Benina Stern (Landlady/Ethel), Jon Toussaint (Billy Dean/Virgil/Leroy Evans) and Arianna Vogel (Violet).
Click below to watch clips from Stanford University’s production of Violet, presented November 14-17, 2013.
-Written by U.B. Editor-in-chief, Scott Kaufman.