By Mary Ann Bourbeau
ATLANTIC HIGHLANDS – Like Don Quixote, the members of All Saints’ Memorial Church were on a quest. Their quest was to draw more people into the congregation and raise money for community outreach and upkeep of the chapel, a National Historic Landmark that dates back to 1864.
They decided to do this by forming a community theater group called the Stone Church Players. Their first show, “Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat,” was presented inside the chapel back in 2009. The group of about 30 actors now produces several fully staged musicals, classic plays, comedies, radio plays and holiday programs throughout the year.
Next up is “Man of La Mancha,” which will take place on June 17-26. It is the story of “mad” knight Don Quixote and his manservant, Sancho Panza, who perform a play-within-a-play in prison as Quixote awaits a hearing with the Spanish Inquisition.
The musical’s principal song,” The Impossible Dream,” is one that can be said of the work being done to maintain repairs on the centuries-old English Gothic Revival church, which was designed by the same father and son architectural team that designed Trinity Church in New York City and St. John’s Church in Boston. The church was placed on the New Jersey State Register of Historic Places in 1973, the National Register in 1974 and designated a National Historic Landmark in 1988.
“It’s an absolutely gorgeous church,” said Director Michael McClellan. “When the light comes through the windows, it’s breathtaking inside.”
McClellan and his partner, Michael Hazlett, founded the Stone Church Players. The township residents strive to put on three or four shows a year inside the chapel, which seats about 90 people.
Several rows of pews are removed and a large wooden stage is installed, which extends the altar another six feet. Although some of the shows are grand musicals, they are stripped down with minimal sets and fewer actors. The costumes are either rented or borrowed from neighboring theater groups, or sometimes created by the actors themselves. The artwork for this show was created by area artist Grace Modla.
“We bring the shows down to their core, to their essence, in order to bring out the real meaning,” McClellan said. “When you scale it down, it tells the story in a very clean perspective.”
The church may be small, but the production doesn’t sacrifice live music. Music Director A.J. Meeker will conduct “Man of La Mancha’s” six-piece orchestra, which includes a grand piano.
“The sound is amazing,” said McClellan. “The acoustics in the space are just incredible. We don’t need microphones because the sound carries so beautifully.”
Brian Craig, who played Macbeth in an earlier production, takes on the lead role of Don Quixote in “Man of La Mancha.”
“We knew he had the right soul for this character,” McClellan said. “His voice is gorgeous. He acts through these songs and you believe every word that comes out of his mouth.”
McClellan and Hazlett moved to Atlantic Highlands from New York City. By day, they both work in the health care field, but they also enjoy expressing their creative sides. Hazlett has performed in theater since he has a child; McClellan, a former pastry chef, is an art history professor at Brookdale Community College. They joined the choir at All Saints’ Memorial Church when they learned that the singers performed 16th and 17th century European songs.
“It was incredibly impressive,” McClellan said. “We wanted to be part of that. Now we want to make sure the church moves forward. We’re doing everything we can to make sure the next generation will be able to use this space too.”
“Man of La Mancha” will be staged on June 17, 18, 24 and 25 at 8 p.m., and June 19 and 26 at 2 p.m. Tickets are $25 for adults and $20 for students and seniors. Seating is general admission. For reservations, call 732-226-6131. Payments can be made at the door with cash or check. No credit cards will be accepted. All Saints’ Memorial Church is located at 202 Navesink Ave., Atlantic Highlands. For more information, visit www.allsaintsnavesink.org.
Arts and entertainment writer Mary Ann Bourbeau can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @MaryAnnBourbeau.
This article was originally published in the June 16-23, 2016 edition of the Two River Times newspaper.
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