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So many things conspired to announce: This is a new theater.

A front-desk box office invited guests indoors to pick up their tickets, promising a respite from wind, rain or searing sun. A mix of leaf-patterned silver wall coverings and full-length glass and banquette seating welcomed visitors from the eyes to the feet. A winding staircase and an elevator offered access to the balcony-fronted second floor, with a refreshment stand twin to the expanded one downstairs, and with more beverage options.

That punch of ambience came before those visitors even stepped into the theater itself, with four levels of upstairs seating and restrooms and acoustically tuned, perforated wood walls.

Underneath the new theater design, however, was the original structure of Sugden Theatre, the home built for The Naples Players in 1998, recipient of a $22 million makeover to maximize its potential.

An example of that potential was about to be revealed on opening night June 26 for 42nd Street, the musical premiere of the newly remodeled Blackburn Hall, now the Kizzie Theater.

It was a treat for longtime Naples resident Sunny Jackson, 82, who has seen plays in every home The Naples Players have performed in, dating back to its debut with I Remember Mama at Naples High School. She served as a teen usher during the Players’ early years.

“I’ve always loved the theater,” Jackson said, calling the new theater “unbelievable.” She emphasized that this community theater has an extremely high quality of actors to work with, recalling the production of Clue while it was in a temporary home at Naples United Church of Christ: “The talent was so, so good.”

Teen Nick Mehler was there with his parents, Kathy and Felix Mehler, to see his sister Lizzy in the play, and for him the tipping point was the new four-row balcony, a component in the original plans that had only been added in the renovation.

“I thought it was excellent. It was awesome, just the view itself,” he said. Both he and his father had caught its importance for several Busby Berkeley-style dance numbers that generated synchronized human geometrics. “You can see that so much better from upstairs.”

His father was impressed with what he was hearing: “I think since they improved the acoustics it gives you a wonderful mixture of sound. It’s a whole new dimension.”

The Players had guaranteed those new acoustics would be handled to their best advantage, bringing in Joshua Reid, a Broadway veteran and Tony nominee, for sound design.

Jan and Kim Kantor are longtime attendees of Naples Players productions who watched the theater as it underwent reconfiguring of rehearsal space and performance halls. They were there with city dignitaries such as Mayor Teresa Heitmann to celebrate its opening night.

“It’s really, really wonderful, and will bring a lot more that they can do for the arts. And of course, the location you can’t beat, right?” Kim Kantor said. Her husband had one word for it: “Spectacular!”

“They opened the season up on my birthday. How could I not come?” joked Rita Albaugh, decked out in a “Happy Birthday” tiara and a butterfly wing cape. But Albaugh, who is office manager for Opera Naples, supports all kinds of musical theater. “I already had season tickets anyway. I love the theater,” she said.

Some of the renovation isn’t ready yet except for naming rights, as CEO and Executive Artistic Director Bryce Alexander quipped to opening night attendees. Donors will get first peek into the new donors lounge that will be part of it. The set production shop, its studio theater and its rehearsal space—a glass-fronted upper story hall that overlooks the north city—also are still being finished.

But the mainstage theater, renamed for $1 million donors Patty and Jay Baker, was ready for the summer musical on schedule. It had only one missing element: Music Director Charles Fornara. Fornara had been suffering through rehearsals with a back condition knowing surgery was imminent, but with hopes he would hold out until opening night. He didn’t quite make it.

It took another veteran of major productions to replace him. John Tengowski, who has worked with Royal Caribbean Cruise Lines entertainment and served as musical director for productions all over the country, flew in the day after a major musical closing June 24 at The Palace Theatre in Manchester, New Hampshire, where he’s music director.

And with the serendipity every opening night hopes for, that musical was 42nd Street.

This story was published in The Naples Press on July 5.

Copyright 2024 Gulfshore Life Media, LLC All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without prior written consent.

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