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East County Thursday, Aug. 16, 2018 10 months ago

The Beat Goes On

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Michelle McCord is giving the most heartfelt performance of her career at the Ovation School of Musical Theatre.
by: Heidi Kurpiela Managing Editor

For more than two decades, Creekwood resident Michelle McCord was a stage sensation in a country  5,000 miles away. 

An American ingenue from Upstate New York, McCord — then known as Michelle Becker — was just 16 when she landed a dance contract overseas. A trained ballerina, McCord moved to Hanover, Germany, and began touring Europe before most of her friends even graduated from high school. 

After spending 10 years on her toes, McCord switched gears. Faced with the reality of aging out of her profession, she launched a second career as a musical theater actress, earning high praise and big laughs as a resident performer at one of the most prestigious theater companies in Berlin, Theatre of the West (Theater des Westens). 

Michelle McCord opened Ovation School of Musical Theatre in 2013.

A high-energy ham, McCord was a triple threat — dancer, singer and actress — performing alongside guest stars such as Eartha Kitt and Leslie Caron. In a national tribute for Marlene Dietrich, she performed in front of an A-list audience that included Billy Wilder and Gregory Peck. 

During her years in Berlin, she filmed a romantic comedy and a bevy of German television shows. She learned to speak the language, got married and had her first daughter. When she returned to the United States at age 40, she surprised herself by stepping out of the limelight and taking a job at the University of Cincinnati’s College Conservatory of Music. This move spurred her third and most indelible act: teacher.

In 2013, the mother of two opened Ovation School of Musical Theatre in a 1,000-square-foot studio on Town Center Parkway in Lakewood Ranch. Armed with a steady roster of 30 students, McCord grew the program into a hotbed for precocious youngsters in East County. 

In just five years, Ovation has expanded into 4,000 square feet to accommodate classes in ballet, tap, jazz, hip-hop, lyrical dance, musical theater dance and performance, acro, acting and vocal technique. The faculty, which includes seven teachers — many of them veterans of the theater industry — functions as a dream team for aspiring young actors, which explains why enrollment is up to 225 students. 

At the front of the pack is McCord, the school’s animated director. At 57, the tireless troubadour is as plucky as ever, proving there’s no such thing as a swan song when you continue to stay relevant in your field. 

You’ve had quite the fairy tale career. How did it all begin? 

“I was really lucky. I started taking ballet when I was 4 at this little regional company in my hometown (outside of Buffalo, N.Y.). At age 10, I was performing at concert halls, parks and colleges. At age 16, I was offered a contract in Germany, so I graduated from high school my junior year and went straight to Europe.”

That was brave of you!

 “I thought I’d go for one year and come back. I ended up staying for 22 years.”

You toured Europe as a ballerina, but then reinvented yourself midway through. Why did you decide to jump over to musical theater?

Michelle McCord (then known as Michelle Becker) as Flaemmchen in the 1991 production of “Grand Hotel” at Theatre of the West in Berlin, Germany.

“As a dancer you start to feel old when you reach your late 20s. I was 27 and there were 16- and 17-year-olds coming up to take my place. I always had a plan in my head that I would go into musical theater. I got hired pretty quickly at the best theater in Berlin. This was in the golden era right before the Berlin Wall came down.”

So you could dance, act and sing?

“I could dance because of ballet and I was lucky to have a good voice. I really stood out though because I was funny. Comedy is important.” 

And you performed with just one company all those years?  

“Yes. I did 30 shows in 11 years. We were the resident ensemble at Theatre of the West (Theater des Westens). Famous guests like Eartha Kitt and Leslie Caron would fly in to do leading roles. It had a ‘Saturday Night Live’ feel to it. We were like a family; there was about 20 of us. We could perform together in anything and improvise quickly.”

You say you got lucky, but making it in show business is about more than just luck. 

“It’s determination. I tell my students, ‘If you’re serious about performing … if you really want this, then put in the time. Learn your craft and go to the auditions.’ The kids who stick to it and give off that kind of energy will make it because they want it.” 

How did your ballet training prepare you for musical theater?

“I am the biggest ballet salesperson. I really believe you should take ballet if you’re going to pursue a career in the theater. If you learn the basics of ballet, you’re in a better position to learn all the other dance styles — modern, tap, lyrical, whatever. Ballet training sticks with you forever, and it teaches you self-discipline and focus.”

Did you enjoy one career more than the other?

“Ballet is serious and quiet. It’s exact and you have to be at the right place at the right time. When I was younger, ballet was my world, and I took it very seriously. When I switched to musicals, I thought it was going to be easier because ballet was such hard work. I was really wrong. I rehearsed all morning, every morning and did a show every evening. It was constant and it required an insane amount of energy. Fortunately I have an inner goofball. I’m loud and have a big personality. Musical theater lends itself to that.”

What was your favorite role?

“Flaemmchen in Tommy Tune’s ‘Grand Hotel.’ That was my big coming out. That one put me on the map. Jane Krakowski originated it in New York and won a Tony Award. I was the first one to play it in Europe.”

What motivated you to start teaching?

“I always said I would never teach. To be honest, I was always so involved in my own career that I couldn’t imagine it would be satisfying to work with anyone else. After I got married and had children, I went back to the states. I took a job at the University of Cincinnati’s College Conservatory of Music and later became the head of the dance department at Northern Kentucky University. I loved it. I loved sharing my knowledge and watching students progress. At Northern Kentucky, I started directing and choreographing, which was really the beginning of Ovation in my mind.”

Can you picture yourself doing anything else?

“Oh my goodness no. I love gardening, but that’s a hobby. I went to my first ballet class and I said, ‘This is what I want to do’ and I never changed my mind. I never had to be a waitress. It’s a rare thing to say you worked nonstop as a professional in theater and never waited a table.”

What role would you love to play today?

“Norma Desmond from ‘Sunset Boulevard.’ It’s so dramatic and over the top, but my voice is too tired to sing anymore. I’m yelling in class all the time.”

Are you dramatic and over the top?

“Oh sure. I’ve got two sides. There’s quiet-at-home-gardening Michelle and full-out-no-inhibitions Michelle. When I’m teaching, I show the kids what I’m looking for. If the energy is low, I’ll be like, ‘What are you waiting for? Give me a 100%! I’m 150 years old and I’m still doing this. You can too!’”

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