ARTS & CULTURE

Bad break for 'Billy Elliot' star a good break for his sub

La Mirada theater's 'Billy Elliot' had to scramble when its young star broke his arm days before premiere

One goal of any theater production is to make it to opening night, even if the star breaks his arm just days before.

And if the show is Elton John's "Billy Elliot," which won 10 Tony Awards, including best musical, and went on to an extensive national tour, the brotherhood of those who have played Billy can come in handy.

The McCoy Rigby production team found itself in this boat just a week before the show premiered Jan. 17 at the La Mirada Theatre for the Performing Arts.

"Billy Elliot" is the story of a young boy who stumbles into a love of ballet against the wishes of his father and older brother, who are both participating in the 1984 miners' strike in Britain.

The La Mirada show's lead was set to be played by 15-year-old Noah Parets, but now Mitchell Tobin, 14, wows crowds nightly.

In one of the musical numbers, Billy describes how it feels to dance, making great use of gymnastic stunts. While rehearsing, Noah, a native of Boston, had to complete a round-off double back-handspring. The acrobatic trick, however, didn't end successfully; two bones in his arm had broken.

"I heard it, I felt it and I saw it," Noah said. "I knew something was definitely wrong."

The day of his surgery, in which doctors realigned his ulna and placed two pins in his radius, Noah won three awards from BroadwayWorld Maine for his portrayal of Billy at the Ogunquit Playhouse last year. But with a cast on his arm in his favorite color, blue, he knew performing the role here wouldn't be possible.

But luckily for the show's producers, Noah and his mother, Robyn Parets, had someone else in mind.

Noah originally played Billy during the "Billy Elliot" national tour with three other boys rotating the role nightly. One of them, with whom Noah became close friends, was the right size and would be able to do the revamped play justice.

At 1 a.m. on a Sunday in Boca Raton, Fla., Mitchell's parents, Valerie and David Tobin, were wide awake fielding calls and messages from the show's producers and Robyn Parets.

"I didn't know what to say," Mitchell said about hearing of Noah's broken arm and the opportunity now open to him. "I was really shocked. First thing I did was call my sister and talk to her about it. She's like my go-to person for everything." His sister Shaina was his initial inspiration to get involved in dance and helps him talk through career moves.

And just like that, Mitchell, who was also in the London show, became the new lead of the La Mirada production.

After coordinating with Mitchell's school, since the show goes through Feb. 8, the family was on a plane that Monday morning to California. Four days of nonstop learning and drilling of new choreography and small lyric changes followed — because it was a local production, only the script and music were the same as the national production and London version; everything else had to be created anew. But his 11 years of training served him well.

On opening night, Mitchell told the story of his journey to the stage to a crowded theater after receiving a standing ovation for his performance. He was lauded for being a fast learner.

Noah sat in the audience that night to support Mitchell and the cast he had grown close to, but it was bittersweet.

"It's a great show, but after doing it so many times, [being in the audience] just feels wrong," Noah said. "It's just different for me because I like to be on stage."

Although most La Mirada shows feature casts from Southern California, the role of Billy requires an actor with very specific qualifications: a young teenage boy who can sing and dance expertly.

While Noah takes the next month to heal, Mitchell will continue pleasing audiences as Billy, a role that has made him "more confident and just overall a better actor and singer and dancer," he said.

"Billy Elliot" runs through Feb. 8 at the La Mirada theater before moving to Glendale's Alex Theatre for three nights starting Feb. 20.

 

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