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Georgetown theater brings musical to downtown Austin

Staff Writer
Austin 360

Like so many do in the last weeks of August, the Georgetown Palace Theater is hitting the road.

But the community theater is hardly going on vacation. And they're not really going too far.

Instead, the Williamson County group is currently staging "Dirty Rotten Scoundrels" at the State Theatre on Congress Avenue. The show runs through Aug. 28.

The venture from Georgetown to Austin is a kind of unusual direct marketing.

"We've always tried to let Austin audiences know we're here and we're presenting great musical theater," says Palace artistic director Mary Ellen Butler. "And we get maybe 15 (percent) to 20 percent of our audiences from Austin. But we'd like more people from Austin to know what we offer. So I thought, maybe what I need to do is go down there and just get them."

After all, Butler has been able to get Austin actors and other theater professionals to make the drive up to Georgetown. "Dirty Rotten Scoundrels" stars the popular Andrew Cannata, who has won Outstanding Actor in a Musical Award from the Austin Critics' Table. And the show's choreography is by Danny Herman and Rocker Verastique, who have a slew of Austin shows to their credit and some Broadway experience.

The venture to downtown Austin is the first time the Palace Theater has hit the road. And "Dirty Rotten Scoundrels" is the first fully staged theatrical production to play on the State's storied stage since the venue re-opened in January.

Originally built in 1935 as a movie theater, the 300-seat State suffered considerable damage when in 2006 a water main running underneath the building broke and flooded the venue. The stage, the basement, several rows of seats and theatrical equipment were damaged. Some $300,000 was spent on repairs and other improvements to bring the venue up to current code.

Since the re-opening in January, Austin Theatre Alliance, the parent organization that operates the State and the Paramount theaters, re-branded the smaller venue as Stateside at the Paramount.

Austin Theatre Alliance is obligated to make the State available for use by other arts groups about 25 percent of the time. That's because the State underwent a $3.5 million renovation in 1998, before the water damage, of which some $1.9 million came from voter-approved city bond money. And in order to be eligible for that bond money, the State has to be shared.

The South by Southwest Film Conference used the State for screenings in March. The Austin Film Festival will also use the venue in September. This season, Austin Theatre Alliance plans to use it for shows for children.

Butler knows something about a theater making a comeback like the State.

The Palace Theater was on the brink of bankruptcy when Butler took over as artistic director in 2004. Now, it has a budget of nearly $1 million and it produces some eight to nine shows a year plus runs a busy children's program that serves more than 350 each summer. Butler's shows are popular, with many selling out their runs, especially the musicals.

The Palace shares a similar history with the State. The Georgetown venue likewise started as a movie theater, built in 1926 just a block from Georgetown's courthouse square.

"For me, touring is familiar, even if it's just going 22 miles down the road," said Butler, who, before moving to Central Texas, spent years with the American Musical Theater Company touring musicals around Europe.

"We've grown a base here, and I'll keep growing it as Williamson County grows," she said. "We have a very appreciative audience in Georgetown. I just hope more people in Austin realize that it's really not that big of a deal to come up to Georgetown for an evening."

jvanryzin@statesman.com; 445-3699