Theater Review: The Sound of Music at The Muckenthaler Cultural Center

The Muckenthaler Cultural Center 1201 West Malvern Ave, Fullerton Runs through June 28th, 2023

The innovative Electric Company Theatre, Muckenthaler Cultural Center’s Resident Theater Group, has given gossamer-like wings to the revival of the well-known musical, The Sound of Music, and this production soars well into the heavens by way of the Muck’s (as it is affectionally called) mansion and spectacular grounds.

I run, never walk, to the Electric Company’s productions because of this theater group’s unrivaled creativity, artistry, and outstanding ways of telling a story, but when I heard that this production was to be The Sound of Music, I wrinkled my nose and wondered what they could possibly do to make this antiquated old warhorse anything other than what it was… old-fashioned. Let’s face it – what is The Sound of Music without Julie Andrews? Nearly everyone knows the story, and the songs are classics, so why was this musical on Electric Company Theatre’s radar?

From the moment the audience gathered in the Circle Center Courtyard, I knew it was different, and I knew I was in the midst of something very special. With lovely angelic statues and quiet, ethereal surroundings, we, the audience, realized that we were no longer in the courtyard. We were suddenly transported back in time and assembled in The Nonnberg Abbey. It was the 1930s. Saintly nuns convened all around us. They led us on an unforgettable journey that had only just begun. As they sang the “Preludium,” “Morning Hymn,” and “Alleluia,” it was as though heaven had opened up and brought angels in to shut the rest of the world away.

For that evening, it was simply the sound of birds chirping in the trees, the softness of a fading sunset, a heartfelt story, and a peek into the souls of these characters that we only thought we knew so well. As viewers, we were all escorted to a hilly part of the grounds that mimicked a mountainside, where a lovely young girl began singing all alone, and it was her – it was Maria (Shayanne Ortiz). No, she wasn’t Miss Andrews, but I had forgotten all about her by then because this young girl singing on the mountaintop was our beautiful Maria. When she began singing about the hills that she loved so much, the lyrics were clearer than they had ever been, and her voice filled our world with her rich, vibrant vocals as she sang out resplendently.

We all moved into the Reverend Mother Abbess’ (Leeza Yorke) pious office, and it was there that Mother sang favorites, “Maria” and “My Favorite Things.” The wise Mother Abbess reminded us that this free-spirited postulant wasn’t yet ready to become a nun. She sent Maria into the “real world” as governess to Capt. von Trapp’s (Brent Schindele) seven children.

Throughout the musical, we were escorted to ten different locations throughout the grounds, each place a perfect backdrop for each new scene. Every spot was as lovely as the last. Once Maria met the Captain, she discovered he was a strict disciplinarian. Although the spunky Maria was respectful, she would have none of his stern whistle-blowing call-to-attention nonsense or treat the children with strict consequences for being kids. Maria taught them how to have fun and be happy and childlike. The Captain was beginning to melt, but he was also set to marry the wealthy and sophisticated Baroness Elsa (Renee Curtis), and even though most of us knew the outcome, we were all still rooting for the perfect ending.

While a true love connection was brewing, another storyline was warming up between 16-year-old Liesl (Emily Taylor) and the 17-year-old German soldier Rolf (Miles Henry). As they sang their catchy duet “Sixteen Going on Seventeen,” we all seemed to forget that they were on opposite sides, and it was simply two teenagers in love. But, the underlying uneasiness of the times was still there, and when, later in the story, Rolf extended his right arm and gave the Nazi salute, I shuttered.

One of the most outstanding moments in the show was Mother Abbess’ (Leesa Yorke) singing of “Climb Ev’ry Mountain,” and surprisingly to me, I had to fight back the tears as Yorke’s incredible mezzo-soprano voice brought chills down my spine.

Brent Schindele played the Austrian retired Captain von Trapp (Brent Schindele) as regimented and tough as he was meant to be but also baring his softer side later on while maintaining his strength of character. When he sang “Edelweiss,” it showed a quiet but stellar display of his character, and not always an easy transition for an actor, but Schindele managed it without a hitch.

The seven remarkably talented children (including Liesl) were collectively captivating, and they played off each other and with Maria beautifully and were a polished ensemble. They brought laughter and fun to the forefront, along with a few pensive moments. I won’t give away how the ending was staged other than to say it was powerful.

As this was a dual cast, Caleb Elliott played Friedrich, Miranda Taylor played Louisa, CJ Walker played Kurt, Lily Garcia played Brigitta, Brooklynn Riggan played Marta, and Camryn Dancer Walker portrayed Gretl. More incredibly outstanding performances were by Alfonso Neavez as Max Detweiler, and as mentioned, Renee Curtis as Elsa, also Andrew Aguilar as Franz, Vanessa Verdugo as Frau Schmidt, Gloria Henderson as Sister Sophia, Madeline Neavez as Sister Margaretta, Megan Cherry as Sister Berthe, James Herrera as Admiral von Schreiber, Tana Carmichael as Baroness Elberfeld, Scott Carmichael as Baron Elberfeld, and Michael Reehl as Herr Zeller.

Shayanne Ortiz excelled in all aspects of her performance as Maria. As Mother Abbess, Leesa Yorke did as well. Let us not forget the bevy of gentle nuns who guided us along, and as the sun went down, they were like fireflies in the darkness as they guided us through the crowd with tiny flashlights lighting our way.

Director Brian Johnson set high standards and expectations for this large-scale production, and his entire Production Team and Company are to be applauded for this – yes – stunning reproduction of one of the most beloved musicals ever to be seen.

Choreography, Emily Taylor; Music Direction, Brent Schindele; Intimacy Coordinator, Callie Prendiville Johnson; Scenic Design, Brian Johnson; Sound Design, Caleb Alcorn; Costume Design, Tara Carmichael; Lighting Design, Matt Mankiewicz. Music by Richard Rodgers, Lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein II, and Book by Howard Lindsay and Russel Crouse.

The Muckenthaler Cultural Center 1201 West Malvern Ave, Fullerton, CA 92821. Runs through June 28th, 2023.

*A message to the patrons: Please dress in layers as it will be cold outside after dark, and most of the show happens outdoors. This production will start at precisely 7 pm. Please arrive a few minutes early to find parking and check in at the Center Circle Courtyard. This production will travel all around the beautiful grounds of the Muck, which will require the audience to walk from location to location.