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Coming back home with 'Chicago'

by: Vern Uyetake, Pilar Millhollen grew up practicing dance at an academy in Lake Oswego below the Wizer’s grocery store. Here she revisits her roots in downtown Lake Oswego. Now traveling with the musical “Chicago,” Millhollen is in Portland to perform at the Keller Auditorium.

On any given night, anywhere across the globe, 25-year-old Pilar Millhollen might have a conversation within her head. Women talk back and forth. Faint sounds of jazz music accompany the dialogue. She mentally blocks out actors running about in black lacy things and hats as they prepare for work.

But, this is nothing abnormal. This is her job. This is her dream … and all that jazz.

As the assistant dance captain and actor for the traveling Broadway musical 'Chicago,' Millhollen must not only be in step with her footwork but also be in sequence with the lines of six female characters. If someone is ill or injured, Millhollen must suit up for the gig - maybe with only a half-hour notice. While she's not a regular role on stage, she must go over her lines quickly and get into character when asked to play the part.

While growing up in Dunthorpe, attending West Linn High School and practicing dance at Lake Oswego academies, Millhollen learned early on that musical theater was her passion.

This week she is back in town preparing for the Portland performances of 'Chicago' at the Keller Auditorium.

'My mom bought about 50 tickets,' Millhollen said. 'Oh, I'm not joking.'

After spending 2006 on the road living out the roaring 20's on stage, which is the era depicted in the popular Broadway musical, what's the best part about being on tour with a famous and beloved musical?

It's simple: Traveling.

'I never in my lifetime would have fathomed that I'd be staying in a seven-star hotel in the United Arab Emirates, swimming in the Persian Gulf all day and then going to work for three hours,' Millhollen said. 'That is the best part about being on tour, easily. It was literally like a paid vacation to go to paradise.'

Razzle and dazzle 'em

At 18 months old, Pilar had musical talent and could play 'Twinkle Twinkle Little Star' on a children's xylophone and sing on pitch.

As a child at Riverdale Grade School, Millhollen knew that the stage was her calling. She started ballet classes at age 8 and later participated in community theater up to and throughout college.

Millhollen's dad sings in the chorus of the Portland Opera. Her mom took her to her first stage performance at age 2 1/2, 'probably because they couldn't get a babysitter,' Millhollen said.

In high school she split time between West Linn High School -for its academics in the morning - and Jefferson High School - for its dance classes and rehearsals in the afternoon.

'I think I was 14 or 15, and I saw a touring production of 'Crazy for You.' It was a Gershwin musical. They all sang and danced. It was at the Keller,' Millhollen said. 'I decided right then and there that I wanted to do musicals.'

Participating in community theater groups such as the Musical Theatre Company, Northwest Children's Theater and the Broadway Rose Theatre Company gave Millhollen professional training and developed her craft as more than just a dancer but also a singer and actor.

'As a high school student to do something that you just wanted to do anyway and then get a check at the end, it's like, 'I'll just put this in for my savings,'' Millhollen said.

In 1999, Millhollen traveled to Denison, Iowa, and performed at The Donna Reed Foundation for the Performing Arts and came home a first-place award recipient in the musical theater category with scholarship money.

'My mom told me that, 'if you do what you love, the money will come,'' Millhollen said. 'Growing up, it never occurred to me that I couldn't make a living performing. So I just did. … My parents never questioned my abilities or the legitimacy of the profession.'

After training at the Broadway Theater Project's summer training program in Florida, Millhollen enrolled at Carnegie Mellon School of Drama in Pennsylvania and started taking her experiences to the next level. And she had her sights on New York City - Broadway, more accurately.

20s living in the '20s

After landing work with Chicago while in New York, Millhollen hit the road with the traveling troop and learned the choreography and lines from city to city.

Millhollen said when learning one role for a play or musical, it usually takes her about two or three weeks to adjust to the show and the script. But 'Chicago' was different.

'Probably in the last three or four months it has really become second nature for me, to where I can only quickly glance at my notes and go on (stage) for any given role,' Millhollen said. 'It took a good six to eight months before I wasn't having a small amount of panic before shows.'

The musical 'Chicago' is a razzle- dazzle tale of sin and celebrity and winner of six Tony Awards, two Olivier Awards and a Grammy. Millhollen's role as the assistant dance captain is to maintain the musical's choreography and train new performers. The performance shows the crime and drinking of the 1920's in Chicago.

Millhollen said she's been in the audience and watched 'Chicago' more than 100 times - for the rest of the performances she was backstage.

Traveling musicals are unique in that not only do the performers need to make it on time from city to city, but so does the stage and set. A borrowed stage from the United Kingdom almost didn't make it in time for some performances near Dubai in Abu Dhabi.

'As long as we have our dance floor down we can do our sound check and we're good to go.'

Millhollen had her eyes on 'Chicago' long before crowded audiences had their eyes on her. While a more theatrical version of 'Chicago' began in the 1970's in New York, Millhollen's production is based on the 1996 revival of the musical, she said.

'The piece - the way it is written - was really brilliant,' Millhollen said. 'It strips away all the costumes; everybody wears the same costume throughout the entire show. The show works so beautifully without needing a bunch of props and sets and flying helicopters and chandeliers.

'All the choreography is right there. It's a visual presentation so it's in its purest form.'

And this week, whether Millhollen is rehearsing choreography backstage or performing center stage, she knows who is in the audience - her friends, family and loved ones.

Center stage opportunities

Two weeks ago Millhollen celebrated her one-year anniversary with 'Chicago.' Her smile envelops her face just mentioning her past 12 months.

'It's so cool. A whole year,' she said. 'I still can't believe this is my job.'

But while still in her 'Chicago'-honeymoon stage, Millhollen knows that someday she will pursue other opportunities within the performing arts industry.

But jazz shoes won't be buried in her gym bag anytime soon. Millhollen said she is extremely confident and comfortable with her job right now. The only thing she misses is digging into her acting roots.

Millhollen said that while walking through the crowded streets in New York City it's easy to become overwhelmed because the city is a Mecca for so many entertainers. But, amid the blur of actors, dancers and singers Millhollen said that all people have a chance to achieve their dreams. And sometimes the hometown girl returns to visit home on a much- larger stage than when she left.

'Find out what makes you special and exploit that to the fullest extent,' Millhollen said. 'Find out what you do best and what's going to make you stand out, and be that. Don't try to emulate somebody else. Just be the best you that you can be. You've just got to be interesting.'

What: 'Chicago' presented by Fred Meyer Broadway Across America

When: Continues today through Sunday

Where: Keller Auditorium, Portland

Tickets: $27.50-$72.50, available Portland Center Performing Arts box office, Ticketmaster locations

Length: 2½ hours

Story: Chicago is a razzle-dazzle tale of sin and celebrity. The musical is winner of six Tony Awards, two Olivier Awards and a Grammy. Lisa Rinna from 'Dancing with the Stars,' 'Days of our Lives' and 'Melrose Place' stars as Roxie Hart for the Portland performances.