Youngest in the cast

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By Michelle Dybal

Contributing Reporter

It's not the first time Milla Liss has been the youngest onstage in front of a huge crowd. In early 2018, at the Junior Theater Festival in Atlanta, she was one of 90 students selected to participate in the Broadway Jr. Slam in front of an audience of some 8,000.

Now the 10-year-old is performing at the 856-seat Albert Theatre at Goodman Theatre in Chicago as Gracie Shinn in The Music Man. The show has been so popular with audiences, the run has been extended twice.

The musical comedy tells the tale of a conman who lands in River City, Iowa, with the promise of starting a band to solve the town's woes. Upstanding citizen Marian the Librarian will not be swayed by his charms, until she sees he is having an effect on the town in a way he never intended.

Milla takes her acting seriously and prepared by watching the 1962 movie and listening to the music, composed by Meredith Willson, who also wrote the lyrics and book, along with Franklin Lacey.

"I do research for my characters," Milla said. "It's a whole new journey each time."

Milla's first theater experience took place when she was 4. She previously attended Pilgrim Nursery School, where her two teachers incorporated music into the curriculum. One teacher, who had a musical-theater background, taught a workshop at Oak Park Art League and Milla signed up, explained her mom, Renee Liss.

According to Renee, the students built a set, and made their costumes. Milla had one line and was hooked. Subsequently, they looked for classes in town and found Ovation Academy for the Performing Arts. 

"There hasn't been any looking back since," she said.

Besides appearing in shows with Ovation and attending Junior Theater Festival with the Academy, Milla works with Academy acting coach Ragan Hughes and has also done voice lessons there.

"Milla works to procure the reaction from the crowd that she's supposed to," Renee said of her daughter's acting. "Since Day 1, she's been trying to do it 110 percent."

"It's a whole 'nother world," Milla said. "I set out my body and I become Shrek, Veruka Salt … since I do all the research."

Her first exposure to musical theater began at a very early age, according to Renee — in utero.

"Truth be told, I hated musical theater," Renee said. But, when she was three months pregnant with Milla, the parents of her wife, Lisa Liss, had tickets to give them. Renee agreed to go. The tickets were for The Music Man.

Now Milla is performing on stage to "Seventy-Six Trombones," "Ya Got Trouble," and "Shipoopi," which is one of her favorite parts because "it gets so many laughs." She also announces the arrival of the Wells Fargo Wagon to her on-stage father, Mayor Shinn.

Milla's performance got a shout-out for her "feverish concentration and panache of a Broadway veteran" by WTTW reviewer Hedy Weiss.

Professional parts do not come easily. Auditions started in January and Milla earned five call-backs before learning she got the part in April.

At one of the final call-backs, Milla interacted with Tony- and Jeff-award-winning director Mary Zimmerman and Tony-nominated choreographer Denis Jones.

After it ends Aug. 18, Milla will return to Whittier Elementary along with other fifth graders. One of her classmates has seen the show, but Milla doesn't expect any students to accord her celebrity status. 

"Being at the Goodman has been a whole new experience, with a live orchestra and a dressing room." Milla said.

"Everyone there had professional experience prior to the Goodman," Renee said. "It's like a family. … She's going to miss everyone when it's over. I think the bonds that formed are going to be everlasting."

See "The Music Man" through Aug. 18 at Goodman Theatre, 170 N. Dearborn, Chicago. $25 to $142. Tickets/more: GoodmanTheatre.org/MusicMan, 312-443-3800.

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