When he was 9, which was three years ago, Mitchell Tobin was taken to see “Billy Elliot the Musical” on Broadway.
It was grrreat.
So great that Mitchell determined, then and there, that one day it would be he who was “born to boogie” … just like the T. Rex song says, in both the original 2000 movie and the later stage version Mitchell witnessed.
Since the titular hero’s age is around 11, “one day” would have to come pretty soon.
“One day,” in fact, arrived last fall, while Mitchell and his family were dining at a pizzeria inside an airport terminal.
They were there because they were returning home to Boca Raton, Fla., direct from an audition —Mitchell’s latest bid to play Billy.
He’d tried in the past, usually tripped up by his small stature, not his lack of dancing skills (he’d been taking ballet since age 3).
This time, he’d made the final callback.
While Mitchell and his parents were downing slices, “I got the call.”
Before we continue with the call’s aftermath, let us pause for a minute.
The interview you’re reading, conducted via phone from Mitchell’s home state of Florida, is being handled like a pro by the star of the national tour of “Billy Elliot the Musical,” making its downstate premiere via a three-night/four-performance stand at the Peoria Civic Center Theater that starts Tuesday.
At age 12, puberty has yet to lower his voice, so he probably sounds like he did when he was 9, sitting in that Broadway theater getting thunderstruck.
“I’ve dreamed all my life since then about playing Billy … it’s all I would talk about at home, all the time.”
Mitchell’s recounting of recent events is handled with complete boyhood enthusiasm, devoid of any trace of the ennui that can infect even the most innocent of showbiz kids, let alone a 12-year-old carrying the weight of a national tour on his slender shoulders.
But back to the pizzeria …
“I started jumping and leaping all around,” he says.
It was a reaction not unlike one that might have erupted from his stage counterpart — the working-class son of a striking coal miner in Thatcher-era England who chooses ballet over boxing, because he was, let’s face it, born to boogie.
The choice is not without consequences, such as the concerns of his widower dad, already having a tough enough time raising two sons, let alone one with (per his alpha-male view) “sissy” leanings.
Mitchell’s dad: Not like Billy’s, hence his and his mom’s support of their son’s acute “Billy”-mania.
Earlier than Billy even, Mitchell was infected by dance fever ever since he was that 3-year-old being taken to his sister Shaina’s dance competitions while his older brothers were off at soccer practice.
“She looked like she was having so much fun on stage that it inspired me to want to dance,” he says. “She’s the reason I got ‘Billy Elliot’ … she’s helped me with my dancing … with everything … without her, I wouldn’t be here now.”
Back, again, to the airport pizzeria … where there were some perplexed eyewitnesses to Mitchell’s joyful outbursts.
“A couple sitting next to us was watching me jump and leap around,” confesses Mitchell. Any initial alarm they may have felt at the sudden hyper activity was soon quashed as Mitchell waved the phone around, shouting, “I’m Billy Elliot! I’m Billy Elliot!”
Soon the couple was dishing out the “congratulations!”
Mitchell barely had time to stop leaping, however: He was one of the four Billys that would lead the national tour kicking off in early 2013. From the 2005 London premiere onward, every “Billy” production requires four young actors who rotate from night to night, per the extreme physical demands and other issues pertaining to their youth.
Rehearsals began in New York for five intense weeks last fall.
“It was very stressful,” he confesses. “We had to learn the show quickly. Each Billy does two shows a week because it’s so demanding … we sing, we dance, we fly, we do almost everything you can think of.”
Funny, we don’t remember Jamie Bell (the movie Billy) doing a Peter Pan turn. (Note: He didn’t — one of the many changes that set the stage version apart from the film; see accompanying story for a partial rundown).
“He’s all alone in a room dancing with a chair and then he imagines he’s an older version of himself, and then he starts literally flying and spinning around the stage,” explains Mitchell, who is outfitted in a harness and, through the miracle of wire rigging and contemporary stagecraft, soars to new heights.
“It’s a lot of fun… and it’s beautiful,” he marvels just several weeks into the tour headed to Peoria in the week ahead.
As for being one of four playing the same role, Mitchell is loving it.
“When you see all the Billys standing in a line together you see four totally different kids and teens.”
Mitchell, at 12, is the youngest and smallest-scaled, while Ben Cooper, at 15, is the eldest: “He could be my older brother, he’s so nice. All the Billys are nice. We’re like one big happy family, really.”
At a glance
What: National tour of “Billy Elliot the Musical”
When: 7:30 p.m. Tuesday through March 14, 2 p.m. March 14
Where: Peoria Civic Center Theater, Peoria
Tickets: $37 to $67
Box office: 309-673-3200
‘Billy’ vs. ‘Billy’
Following are some of the alterations made along the journey of “Billy Elliot” from film drama with dance and music to full-blown stage musical with drama:
The film’s soundtrack is comprised of pre-existing music, largely by ’70s glam-rock band T. Rex, but also The Clash and Style Council; the show’s 15-song score is almost entirely by Elton John and Lee Hall (author of the film’s screenplay and the stage show’s book); retained is T. Rex’s “Born to Boogie.”
The film’s choreography for Billy is rooted in step-dancing, while the show’s dance styles combine elements of ballet and tap, along more traditional stage musical lines.
The film’s earthy, working-class language was strong enough to earn it an R rating; the show’s dialogue dials it down to the more family-friendly PG-13 level the film displayed when it was re-edited for home video.
The mid-’80s UK miners’ strike that informs the film is brought further to the fore in the show, with a stronger presence by the community and more overt anti-Thatcher sentiments, including an entire song devoted to same (“Merry Christmas, Maggie Thatcher”).
Grandma, a subdued and minor character in the film, becomes a more active participant in the show, replete with a tap-dancing-diva showstopper, “Grandma’s Song.”
The film’s Billy does not fly like Peter Pan, or even come close; the show’s Billy becomes airborne during a spectacular dream sequence set to “Swan Lake,” which involves another dancer playing an adult version of himself.
The film ends 14 years after the strike, with Billy a grown man dancing “Swan Lake” at the Royal Ballet; the show concludes with young Billy bidding gay friend Michael goodbye as he leaves for Royal Ballet School.