When Jennifer Milligan was a student at Westerville North High School, she never anticipated playing the blues.

When Jennifer Milligan was a student at Westerville North High School, she never anticipated playing the blues.

The Westerville native was trained in disciplines such as theater, tap dancing and acting, and studied at the University of Cincinnati Conservatory of Music before moving to New York City.

But the intense workload of performing was too much for Milligan.

"I broke my voice doing musical theater," she said. "I was going to quit singing."

But at Naropa University in Boulder, Colo., Milligan found her salvation in the form of alternative vocal training. The new way of singing helped strengthen her voice enough for her to start singing the blues. And since the recovery, her blues career has been on a fast track.

Milligan graduated from Naropa in 2007 and moved to France full time, where she had studied in a workshop during her time at school.

After three years of honing her craft, she met accomplished blues guitarist Pascal Fouquet. The pair began playing together, and formed the band Lil' Red and the Rooster. Just four years later will be competing in the International Blues Challenge in Memphis, Tenn.

The contest, which runs from Jan. 20 through Jan. 24 will serve as a culmination of years of hard work for Milligan, 47, and a lifelong goal for Fouquet, 51.

Milligan hasn't been singing the blues for long, but her transition from theater means the road hasn't been an easy one.

"The transition was really hard because I wanted to do it right. Pascal has been playing the blues for 40 years, so that helps," she said with a laugh. "I had to go back to the old blues singers and really listen to how they use rhythm, how they use notes and bend notes and the emotion in them and how they work with the music."

Despite her background, Milligan said she's found a home with the blues.

"What I've found is a freedom that theater doesn't allow," she said. "In the blues, all I have to do is get on the stage and be myself and express what I have to express.

"That may seem really simple, but it's actually one of the most challenging things to do, especially after theater training. ... I can really relax, and I can really connect with the public that way. I've always felt at home on the stage, and this way it's just absolute freedom."

While she's found success in the blues world, Milligan said she's not planning on getting complacent.

"I'll always have a lot left to learn," she said. "Maybe that's what keeps me successful in different genres. I never feel like I've completed anything. I'm constantly looking to learn more."

The Westerville native and her partner will play in her hometown before and after their appearance at the Blues Challenge.

Lil' Red and the Rooster will play at Java Central, 20 S. State St., from 3 to 5 p.m. Sunday, Jan. 18, before leaving for Memphis; and again after the competition, from 7 to 10 p.m. Jan. 31.