Actress reveling in 'Millie' and in living in Omaha again


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Jill Anderson warms up before a "Thoroughly Modern Millie" rehearsal at the Omaha Community Playhouse.
 

She calls it the yo-yo effect.

Professional singer-actress Jill Anderson has made her living in Chicago, New York and, briefly, Los Angeles, with plenty of regional theater and cabaret work in between.

She keeps returning to Omaha, her hometown.

In April she bought a house near 38th and Martha Streets. Soon after, the Omaha Community Playhouse hired her as guest artist to play the title role in "Thoroughly Modern Millie," a Roaring '20s musical that opens Friday.

Anderson overflows with energy and enthusiasm for her latest gig, bobbing her hair and buying books about flappers to prepare.

"It's just a lark," she said last week. "It's everything you want in a musical: comedy, slapstick, lots of tap dancing, mayhem and silliness and romance. It's got it all, and I'm having a great time with it."

She relates to her character.

When Anderson first moved to New York in 2002, the adjustment was rough.

"I lived such a sheltered, cocooned life in Omaha, with so much encouragement and positive energy. Then I launched into unknown territory. And that's the story of Millie."

A best-musical Tony winner in 2002, "Thoroughly Modern Millie" is based on a 1967 Oscar-nominated film that starred Julie Andrews, Mary Tyler Moore and Beatrice Lillie. It's the story of a small-town Kansas girl who wants to remake her image in the big city. She falls in love, then becomes embroiled in her landlady's white-slavery ring.

"Millie's just unsquashable," Anderson said. "Whatever circumstances come her way, she rolls with it. She's not going to be destroyed by adversity. And I can very much relate."

The tap numbers in "Millie" take Anderson back to her first taste of the arts, dance lessons at age 5 at the Beth Gaines Studio.

"She was always an entertainer," said her mother, Barb Anderson of Omaha. "She liked to make people laugh. When she was in high school, it really began to emerge."

Leading roles at Central High School led Anderson to settle early on her career choice. She never wavered, earning a degree in dramatic arts from the University of Nebraska at Omaha.

Jill Anderson
Born: Dec. 9, 1966, in Omaha

Education: Graduate of Central High School, attended University of Nebraska-Lincoln, bachelor's in dramatic arts from the University of Nebraska at Omaha

Family: Parents, Bill and Barb Anderson, and a brother, Joe, all of the Omaha area

Hobbies: Dancing rockabilly to the Mercuries, collecting vintage clothing

Did you know: She had a lisp until a speech therapist helped her lose it at age 10.

Professional credits: Nebraska Shakespeare Festival, Nebraska Theatre Caravan, Opera Omaha, Orlando Philharmonic, New York Festival of Song at the Library of Congress, Blue Barn Music Festival, Milwaukee Repertory Theater, Barter Theatre (Abingdon, Va.), Cape May (N.J.) Stage, Utah Musical Theatre in Ogden, Equity Showcase in New York City. Vocal recordings both solo and with Beyond the Pale. Appeared in "Omaha (the Movie)."
After graduation, she took scattered day jobs while honing her craft with theaters around town. An affinity for Irish music led her to form Beyond the Pale, a vocal trio with Brendan Kelly and Karen Coover.

"Just on a lark, we worked up a few Irish songs in three-part harmony," Anderson recalled. "We went down to open-mike night at the Dubliner."

A rousing response led to a CD and years of regular pub dates in the late 1980s.

"One St. Patrick's Day, we did so many gigs we lost our voices," she recalled.

The group moved to Chicago, playing three years in the early '90s before splitting up.

Back in Omaha, Anderson toured two seasons with the Nebraska Theatre Caravan, a professional arm of the playhouse. After an appearance in "Omaha (the Movie)," she went to Los Angeles and sought film work, but she didn't like La-La Land.

After five months there, she formed Bad Rep Productions with Omaha actor-playwright Tim Siragusa, writing and producing zany musical spoofs such as "Little Nelly's Naughty Noel."

That led to a job with Opera Omaha, singing on outreach tours and in-town galas. Through the opera's musical director, Hal France, she did solo work with the Orlando Philharmonic and the New York Festival of Song.

She moved to New York City in 2002. Cabaret work and regional theater roles took her from Oregon to Virginia, Utah to New Jersey.

But she was always happy to come back to Omaha. In 1999, she won a dramatic-actress award as Annie Sullivan in the playhouse's production of "The Miracle Worker." Director Susan Baer Collins recalls how prepared Anderson was for the role.

"You wish all theater projects felt like that one did," Collins said. "She gives it 100 percent, and she's interested in all aspects of the production."

She gave up the New York apartment only recently. Her intent now is to make Omaha her base, keep her regional theater and cabaret contacts active, "and cobble together my living, basically."

Playhouse artistic director Carl Beck, who is directing "Millie," said Anderson has the skills to do it.

"She brings a keen intelligence to her work," Beck said. "Hand her a set of images or ideas, and she immediately processes them. And she brings a great deal of fun to rehearsal."

Kelly, who sang for years with Anderson in Beyond the Pale, puts it differently.

"I think there's almost no separation between her and her art," he said by phone from Chicago. "She allows her talents to infuse her life."