The best thing about playing the Artful Dodger in the musical "Oliver!," says Ethan Haberfield, 14, of Tenafly, is that 'e learned 'ow to talk loyk this.
"We had multiple dialect sessions," says Haberfield, who pulled out a plum role in Paper Mill's Christmas pie - that of the Cockney scamp who gives poor, runaway Oliver (Tyler Moran) his first taste of friendship, and Act I its first big production number: "Consider Yourself." This is his first role at the Millburn theater.
It's also a bit of a change for Haberfield, whose last big role was the very English, but very proper, Michael Banks in the Broadway production of "Mary Poppins."
To go from that spit-and-polish Edwardian boy to this streetwise, street-slangy London urchin was no small stretch. Haberfield had to go the reverse Eliza Doolittle route: He was rigorously taught the dialect of the 19th-century English slums.
"There are certain rules to remember, like how to pronounce your o's and a's, " he says. "Like 'Consider Yourself.' You have to do a glottal stop when there's a consonant in the word: 'Consi-er yourself.' And dropping your h. If you were to say 'hello,' you'd say ' 'ello.' You want the audience to believe that you're a Cockney. And for you, when you come through the stage door and speak American, for them to say, 'Wait, you're not British!' "
This isn't Haberfield's first experience slumming -- so to speak - - onstage.
As early as age 9, he was borrowed by Tenafly High School to play Gavroche, the street kid who dies at the barricades, in a production of "Les Miserables." Now that he himself has grown to high school age (ninth grade), he's attending the Professional Children's School in New York in preparation for a career in the arts.
"I love the arts, and want to be involved in [them]," says Haberfield, who gets plenty of encouragement from mom Leorah and dad Jordan, (he also has a sister, Julia, age 12).
He's already made several notable appearances as an actor: in the Drew University production of "To Kill a Mockingbird," in a bit part in the Metropolitan Opera's production of "Don Giovanni" and, of course, in "Mary Poppins," in which he enjoyed the ministrations of the magical nanny from 2010 to 2011. But in some ways his biggest coup was an appearance in the 2012 movie thriller "Sinister," with Ethan Hawke. His namesake, he says.
"My mother named me Ethan because of him," Haberfield says. "They loved his work, and they named me after him. Immediately when I met him, I said, 'I love you. I was named after you.' I doubt he gets that every day."
In "Oliver!," Lionel Bart's hit 1960 family musical based on Charles Dickens' "Oliver Twist," he serves a key function: lightening what until his appearance has been a very grim first act.
Though "Oliver!" is a considerably softened, sweetened version of Dickens' harsh 1837 indictment of greed, poverty and crime, it's still the story of an ill-treated orphan in the clutches of callous bureaucrats and brutal thieves.
Even with the jollification of the creepy fence Fagin ("Married ... with Children's" David Garrison) into a lovable rascal and the leavening effect of songs like "Food, Glorious Food," "Where is Love," "You've Got to Pick a Pocket or Two" and "Oom Pah Pah," it could still be heavy going.
"I know the book is much darker and creepier," Haberfield says. "The musical is funny and sad and dramatic. It's a family musical."
Even so, the beginning is bleak enough -- with starving little Oliver, minutes after the opening curtain, banished from the workhouse for the crime of asking, "Please sir, I want some more," and then abused as an apprentice at an undertaker's establishment. When he runs away to London and encounters the half-pint hoodlum described by Dickens as "altogether, as roistering and swaggering a young gentleman as ever stood four feet six," who promptly sweeps him into a den of pickpockets, it is - ironically -- the first happy moment in the story.
"You need a character like the Artful Dodger just to keep it upbeat," Haberfield says. "I think Dickens knew that."
Much of that, of course, has to do with the big, cheery production number "Consider Yourself," in which Haberfield lays out the welcome mat.
" 'Consider Yourself' is very important to the show," Haberfield says. "He's taking Oliver back to the thieves' lair where Fagin lives. He makes Oliver feel at home. Maybe it's not the best home -- but it's good enough for Oliver."
WHEN: Through Dec. 29. Schedule: 7 p.m. Wednesday, 1:30 and 7 p.m. Thursday, 7 p.m. Friday, 1:30 and 7 p.m. Saturday, 1:30 and 7 p.m. Sunday.
WHERE: Paper Mill Playhouse, Brookside Drive, Millburn; 973-376- 4343 or papermill.org.
HOW MUCH: $27 to $98.
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