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There’s a thunderbolt of realization the moment you set foot in the new, three-story lobby of the Sugden Theatre: This is what this building was meant to be.

Even with workers on their knees adding grout to the tiles and plastic still protecting all the Kizzie Theater seating, the expanded theater looks as though it had been built for this incarnation:

• A wide sash of staircase that guides balcony ticketholders up to an open second story to the right and center. (An elevator, for those who choose it, is on the right side of the lobby.)

• A customer service desk on the left side, behind the box office, which has been moved to the front of the building, its window facing Fifth Avenue South. Farther down, on the other side of the lobby, is another expansion: the refreshment bar. It’s double the size of its predecessor and has the ability to hold snacks and salads for the people who frequent the theater for rehearsals and classes.

• Wood and subtle leaf-print wallpaper dominate the decor, but much of it has been given over to glass, which now stretches from the floor to near the ceiling, with full-length windows turning the lobby’s west side into a panorama of passersby. For those who want a closer look, the side steps have been built up to become a single-level pillared porch for fresh air and drinks outdoors.

• Above it all, a blunted crescent of third-story windows floods the space with light. That first glimpse may be an emotional moment for some people when they learn those windows have been there, waiting for this moment, since the building’s inception in the mid-1990s. They were part of the design by its local architect, the late Andrea Clark Brown. Her vision for the Sugden included the roof-height ceiling and the second-story theater access.

The views of center stage from newly installed second floor balcony of the Sugden Theatre on 5th Street in downtown May 13, 2024 in Naples.Making every view a good one

Everything about that first impression says this theater is planning for bigger and better, and the mainstage, renamed the Kizzie Theatre, bears it out. The building had been engineered for a mainstage balcony, and it now has one with 144 seats.

There are even some paired side seating wings for those who want to a) limit their conversation to one seatmate, b) be seen by the audience below or c) get the full span of Peter Pan flying over the audience, a possibility with the higher ceiling.

The first-floor seating has changed, too. “We even drilled out the concrete,” said Bryce Alexander, CEO and executive/artistic director of The Naples Players.

Several seats were removed from each side to create safe walkways to the stage for actors entering it, a common device in its musicals. That also eliminated inadequate views.

“Those bottom corners were terrible seats,” Alexander acknowledged. “So we brought in everything. And then we brought these seats up a little bit so that they are significantly improved.”

The result is the end of the neck-craner seats of the first two rows; the incline has been reduced and they will have a view straight onto the stage.

This configuration will still give the theater the second largest dedicated theater seating in town, 452, behind Hayes Hall at Artis—Naples. There is, Alexander said with pride, still an orchestra pit in this theater, one big enough for 16 musicians. And the theater has added a “sensory booth” on the second story for people with sensory issues who need reduced sound effects and more private space.

The new theater also has custom-designed, wood-paneled walls, done in 2- to 3-inch lattice over acoustic board with elongated perforations. It reflects the sound and dampens reverberation—and looks like contemporary architecture.

It’s one of a kind, and there’s another such achievement: Sugden, Alexander said, will be the only LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design)-certified theater in the state of Florida.

John Jewell, a Naples cabinetry expert, designed the walls, one of the things Alexander is proud of: “All of the subcontractors on this project are local. All $22 million we’re spending is going to local companies.”

The newly renovated lobby of the Sugden Theatre on 5th Street in downtown May 13, 2024 in Naples.So much work behind the scenes

These renovations are what the public will see most. What has given Alexander the unofficial title of Restoration Parent is the work with contractors behind those public spaces.

“I’m actually here every day,” he said. “Because the systems are so unique, it’s easier for them to have experts on the systems helping guide them than them just following the plans flatly. A classic example is that when they were starting to work on the costume shop, they saw that there were plans for something called a wig desk. The contractors really had to ask: What do the wigs need a desk for?”

The wigs will get their desk, and the costume shop will get what Alexander believes is “the nicest costume shop in the South,” with its 1,800 feet of storage and northern exposure full-length windows. Those will allow costumers to see their materials in natural light, but with safe exposure behind UV-protective windows.

The shop is one of the two largest spaces on the second and third floors on that side of the building, which was leveled and rebuilt into a warren of theaters, rehearsal space, dressing rooms and the costume shop.

When the project is complete, The Naples Players could theoretically be fielding six performances at the same time:

• The 102-seat black-box theater built as the Tobye Theatre now has a patron name, the Glass Studio Theatre. It is part of a second phase of the opening, closer to September.

• The youth rehearsal and performance space on the second-floor expansion, with floor-to-ceiling glass that can darken with drapes for productions. It also has the potential to become a rental venue.

• A third-story small-theater space for audiences of 25 to 50. Alexander sees it as a good space for cabaret-style events.

• The Kizzie Theater, with its large-scale productions that the company is known for— its musicals and Broadway plays.

• The front plaza, where the occasional free Shakespeare productions take place.

• The lobby itself, now with its own balcony options, which can be considered for some theatrical events.

The newly renovated lobby of the Sugden Theatre will have a coffee bar on 5th Street in downtown May 13, 2024 in Naples.Sneak previews in early June

The public will be able to see the theater when Naples Players offers some short free productions to introduce it at 7:30 p.m. Saturday, June 1, and 2 p.m. Sunday, June 2. Tours will be available before and after each performance.

The musical 42nd Street will formally christen the Kizzie Theater when its iconic tap dance sequence opens the first production June 26.

After rising costs of materials brought the price up to $22 million, The Naples Players is still seeking a final $2 million for Phase 2. But Alexander is elated about every aspect of work that’s been done so far. Apart from the acoustics firm in Gainesville, the new Sugden Theatre has been a home-based project.

“It’s designed and built by all local individuals,” he said, looking up at Brown’s roofheight windows. “There’s a lot of pride in this building because it was built for and by our community.”

For tickets to 42nd Street or to one of the opening events, visit or call the box office at 239.263.7990.

This story was published in The Naples Press on May 17.

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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