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When ticket holders for Friday's Patti LaBelle concert at Wells Fargo Center for the Arts stream into the main theater, they're going to notice some changes.

The center's 1,600-seat Ruth Finley Person Theater has been transformed by a $2.8 million renovation that began in May and was wrapped up this week.

The results include a bigger stage, new seating on the main floor and better sound and sight lines, said Marc Hagenlocher, the center's director of operations.

"As far as what the audience will notice, it's going to be absolutely amazing," Hagenlocher said. "It's going to be a fun night for people-watching, just to see the reactions of folks coming into the room. The whole room is opened up, so it looks different."

The remodeling of the theater is the first stage of the center's four-phase, $10 million upgrade to its grounds and building, constructed just north of Santa Rosa in 1974 to house the Christian Life Center, and taken over by the arts center in 1981.

"We're going from a performing arts center using a building that was designed as a church, to a true performing arts center," he said.

The revamping is intended to help put center on a more solid footing as the landscape for regional entertainment venues changes — most notably by the opening last year of the $145 million Green Music Center in Rohnert Park.

Initially, the bankrupt Christian Life Center was bought by a group of prominent local families and donated to the community primarily as a home for the Santa Rosa Symphony, said Rick Nowlin, executive director of the Wells Fargo Center. The symphony moved its classical season last fall to the Green Music Center.

"This is the next step in the evolution of the center," Nowlin said. "Over time, the center has grown into its own entity."

Wells Fargo Center offers a range of acts including pop and country singers, rock and jazz bands, comedians, dance troupes, touring children's theater companies, acrobats, magicians and more.

The main theater at the center has been closed for renovation since May 8. Still, 83,414 tickets were sold during the preceding nine months, down only slightly from 86,266 for the 2011-2012 season, said Kyle Clausen, the center's marketing director. That's up from the 78,981 tickets sold for the 2010-2011 season.

By Thursday, just over 1,000 out of 1,600 seats had been sold for the LaBelle concert, he said, and comedian Ron White's show next weekend is sold out.

Nowlin said the renovation will position the Wells Fargo Center to complement the Green Music Center, rather than try to compete.

Although the Santa Rosa Symphony has moved its classical season to the Green Music Center, it continues to partner with Wells Fargo Center on its pops series, he said.

The Green Music Center quickly established a reputation as the region's premier acoustic venue, emphasizing high-profile classical and jazz performers. The remodeled Wells Fargo Center will focus on bigger stage productions and acts with amplified sound, Nowlin said.

"We can present a variety of acts — dance, theater, music of all kinds, comedy and spoken-word performances," Nowlin said.

Sometimes, the Wells Fargo Center competes for name acts with other venues in the region. Country singer-songwriter Lyle Lovett, who has played the center in the past, appeared this week at the Marin Civic Center and previously played the Uptown Theatre in Napa.

There is give and take involved, Nowlin said. "The Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra played the Green Music Center in March, and they're on our schedule for next spring."

Hagenlocher defined the drastic changes at the center in reality TV terms, calling the project "Extreme Makeover — Theater Edition."

"And we did it in 13 weeks," he said.

The changes allow the center to remove the seating on the main floor to accommodate performers whose fans like to get up and dance.

And performers' equipment now can be loaded directly from outside the building through a bigger access stage, instead of trundled down the aisles of the theater. That means the center can shift from one production to the next more quickly and easily, Hagenlocher said.

"We can have ballet one night, hard rock the next night and an educational performance the following day," he said.

For those who want to see a performance inside the newly improved hall without spending money on tickets, the center will present a free concert Aug. 25 by the United States Air Force Band of the Golden West (although advance reservations will be required.)

"We thought this would be a perfect opportunity to have the community come out and experience the new hall and see the changes that have taken place," Nowlin said.

(You can reach Staff Writer Dan Taylor at 521-5243 or dan.taylor@pressdemocrat.com. See his ARTS blog at http://arts.blogs.pressdemocrat.com.)