It seems fitting that “Jesus Christ Superstar” will be performed at Alfresco Art Center in Granite City this weekend.
The stage served as a pulpit for First Baptist Church for 90 years.
Brenda Whitaker, a local restaurant owner, bought the massive brick building four years ago and recruited volunteers to help renovate it. Now it’s a non-profit cultural center with a 280-seat theater, art gallery, bar and conference rooms.
“It’s gorgeous,” said David Mendoza, 53, of Collinsville, a safety trainer and musician who’s playing Jesus. “It has some of the best acoustics in the St. Louis area. It’s comparable to places like the Sheldon. We use microphones, but you can get on stage without them and be heard.”
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On a recent weeknight, the former church sanctuary was bustling with actors, half dressed in hippie costumes. Some stood up front, under a 45-foot-high dome. Others sat in wooden pews with burgundy cushions.
Cast and crew were waiting for Director Lisa Fensterman to start rehearsal. She suspects the show will sell out all three nights.
“This is one of the classic rock operas,” said Lisa, 60, of Granite City, who also is artistic director for Alfresco Productions, the resident community theater troupe. “(The opera) was written and produced by Tim Rice and Andrew Lloyd Webber, and they have collaborated on some other very popular shows.”
Audience members can sit on the main level or second-floor mezzanine, which includes a bird’s-eye view of the stage, counter seating and proximity to the Club 21 bar.
Also notable is the lobby and concession stand with their high ceilings, massive woodwork and stained-glass windows. Volunteers Elisa and Douglas Comer helped spruce them up Sunday.
Like David, Elisa compares the theater to a well-known St. Louis venue.
“It’s almost like going to The Fox,” she said. “Between the stained glass and the paint color and the light fixtures and the gold leafing, it feels kind of majestic.”
In real life, Elisa, 35, of Granite City, is parking operations supervisor at Washington University. She sees Alfresco, which is a block from a movie theater and two popular restaurants, as an important part of downtown revitalization.
“If you can breathe new life into it and make it exciting and fun and someplace people want to spend time, it’s good for the whole town,” she said.
Brenda Whitaker, 53, is a former steelworker who opened Garden Gate Tea Room in 2000. She has been involved in theater off and on since high school, mainly in lighting and set design.
The roots of the cultural center go back to Brenda’s co-sponsorship of Granite City’s fall Spooktacular.
“We just called it an ‘Alfresco (Italian for “open air”) production’ because it was an outdoor event,” she said.
Then Brenda got involved in the Melting Pot craft market, Blue Collar Blues and BBQ Fest and Six Mile Sculpture Works. Eventually, she figured the city needed an indoor venue for cultural activities.
By that time, First Baptist Church had dwindled to eight members who were struggling with upkeep.
Brenda bought the building, thinking it could be supported with rental fees from the many metro-east theater troupes without permanent homes. She later decided it needed to stage its own productions.
“The reality is, there are so many bills to pay, I couldn’t rely solely on other companies to fill the space,” she said.
Today, Alfresco produces about 10 plays and musicals a year, has occasional art shows in its second-floor gallery and rents conference rooms for meetings. The former fellowship hall serves as a scene shop. Sunday school classrooms have been converted into rehearsal and audition spaces.
Theatergoers can rent a “VIP lounge” with comfy couches, crystal chandeliers, a grand piano and electric fireplace if they want to mingle and eat hors d’oeuvres before shows.
“This is a 100-percent volunteer organization,” Brenda said. “No one makes a salary. All proceeds go to programming and overhead.”
Lisa Fensterman was heavily involved in community theater as a troupe founder, director, choreographer and performer before getting too busy with her former job as a Home Depot human-relations manager. Brenda lured her back to the stage by inviting her to see “Forbidden Broadway,” a joint production of Summerstage and Alfresco.
“It’s very easy to get the bug again after it has already been instilled in you for so many years,” Lisa said.
David Mendoza is a former singer and guitarist in the popular metro-east band Sammie and the Snowmonkeys and a current member of the Cassanova Quartet, Cut-N-Dry and the Centerpointe Church band. This weekend will be his second stint in community theater. The first was 20 years ago, when he played Jesus in “Superstar” with Lisa’s troupe, Showtime Express.
“It’s something that’s helped in my own life as a Christian,” he said. “It brings back the (Bible) stories.”
The Alfresco production is a family affair for David, whose sisters, Marta Mendoza Scaturro and Julie Ybarra, his brother-in-law, Tom Scaturro, and niece, Melodie Chism, are part of the cast and crew.
Leads also include Phil Leveling, of Glen Carbon, as Judas; Sarah Dowling, of St. Louis, as Mary Magdelan, Dennis Mahlin, of St. Charles, Mo., as Pilate; Gary Grandidier, of Granite City, as Caiphas; Dan McGee, of Granite City, as Annas; Jeffrey Bennett, of Belleville, as Peter; Mark Lull, of Granite City, as Herod; and Eric Reed, of Belleville, as Simon.
“We have about 30 people in our core group,” Lisa said. “We’ve had shows with a two-person cast up to 55 people in this show. It’s one of our biggest productions.
“It’s a very moving piece of music, and we have two very excellent performers playing Jesus and Judas. I’ve seen tears in the eyes of people sitting here watching the rehearsal.”
At a glance
What: “Jesus Christ Superstar”
Where: Alfresco Art Center, 2041 Delmar Ave. in Granite City
When: 7:30 p.m. Friday through Sunday
Tickets: Garden Gate Tea Room in Granite City or from any cast member
Reservations: Visit www.alfrescoproductions.org
Information: Call 844-248-9780