By Hap Erstein
The Palm Beach Post
March 3, 2013
[Boca Raton, Florida, USA] – It is a long way from singing and dancing on the living room coffee table to starring in a hit Broadway musical that tours the performing arts centers of the nation. But that is the journey of 12-year-old Mitchell Tobin of Boca Raton, who appears this week at the Kravis Center as “Billy Elliot,” in the musical about a Northern England coal miner’s son who yearns to dance.
A student at the Bak Middle School of the Arts, Tobin can pinpoint the time he realized what he wanted to do with his talents. “I’ve been wanting to be in ‘Billy Elliot’ for almost four years, ever since I saw the show when I was nine,” he says.
Recalling that first exposure to the 10-time Tony Award-winning show with songs by Elton John, Tobin adds, “I was speechless. I knew I had to get this role. It was my dream to do it.”
Of this jump-start towards a professional career, Mitchell’s mother Valerie, who travels with him on tour, says, “I sort of thought it was what he was destined to, but I really didn’t think it would happen this early, honestly.”
Mitchell began dancing at the age of 3, tagging along to his older sister’s dance classes. By 4, he was vying in dance competitions and performing solos by the time he was 5.
By [age] 9, a casting director for “Billy Elliot” saw him dance at an open call in Orlando. “She saw something in him and would call me every year and would have me bring him back for a follow-up,” says Tobin. Small for his age, it was not until Mitchell grew enough to fit the role that the auditioning began in earnest.
“He moved me quite a bit because he could immediately tap into the emotional qualities, the emotional aspects, of Billy,” recalls Steven Minning, who directs the national tour. “I was quite moved that a boy of that age could have access to those emotions.”
It took Mitchell four auditions to earn the coveted role of a small town boy who goes from boxing to ballet and discovers his true self. He became one of four boys to play Billy Elliot in rotation. Once he was cast, the intensive training began. “We had about five weeks to learn the part,” says Mitchell. “It was very stressful, because we had to learn the role in such a fast period of time, but it was fun at the same time.” His mother recalls the rehearsals as “pretty grueling. Twelve hours a day, six days a week, which included three hours of tutoring. And he had to learn a dialect.”
Within the broad confines of the role, the boys are encouraged to bring their own personalities to Billy. “We cast Mitchell because he’s Mitchell,” says Minning. “He has an impish quality, he’s very smart, he’s always thinking ahead. And there was just something quite charismatic about Mitchell. His zest for life really jumps out. That’s who his Billy is.”
Touring week in and week out has been a strain on the Tobins, but the family has been very supportive of Mitchell. His mother has put her nursing career on pause and his brother and sister are resources from a distance. “Whenever I need to talk to someone about my technique or I need some advice, I know I can always go to my sister. She was like my dance teacher at home, critiquing my dances,” explains Mitchell. “My brother, if I‘m ever ticked off about anything, I can always talk to him and he’ll help me be less mad.”
The role requires Mitchell to be proficient in tap, ballet, modern dance and a bit of hip-hop. He was already a competitive tap champion, and he picked up the other dance styles in rehearsals.
Asked to name a favorite number he performs, Mitchell quickly mentions his second act solo, “Electricity.” “I think that’s a part I do really well, because I let all my emotions out and I get to lose myself onstage.”
Then he quickly adds, “No, my favorite number is ‘Dream Ballet,’ where Billy’s all alone in a room and he turns off the lights and he just loses himself in this beautiful dancing. At one time in it, I get to soar above the stage and spin all the way up to the ceiling. I love doing it, it’s so much fun.”
The first time his mom saw Mitchell in the show, she was floored. “It’s indescribable. It was totally surreal. I pretty much cried through the whole show,” she says. “It was pretty amazing.”
He has been playing Billy since December and has a six-month renewable contract that runs through May. Minning notes that the “average shelf life” for youngsters in the role is a year and a half, but Mitchell might be able to stay in longer because of his relatively tiny size. Or he might find a role that intrigues him more before outgrowing this one. “I’m just going to take myself where life tells me to go,” Mitchell says philosophically. “If I see a role that I’m really interested in, I’m going to try to get that role like I did with Billy.”
There are so many factors, including blind luck, in a performer’s ability to sustain a career, but Minning is confident that Mitchell has the talent for it. “They’re so young, but he’s an intelligent young man, so if he decides to put his mind to it, I don’t see why he couldn’t.”
Certainly Mitchell has the desire. “Yes,” he says without hesitation, “this is what I want to do for the rest of my life.”
© 2013 Cox Media Group