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Oliver! review – tunes, glorious tunes and a thrillingly vivid production

<span>Photograph: Alastair Muir</span>
Photograph: Alastair Muir

With child hunger and antisemitism each making a comeback in Britain, a revival of Lionel Bart’s Oliver! has – amid its tunes, glorious tunes – an unwanted topicality. And though Bart’s 1960 musical twist on Dickens is one to which audiences will always warm, it is notably hard to cast and stage. There is a child central character, meaning that, unusually, the protagonist has only one solo: Where Is Love? And equally unusually for the genre, it has a love story that is violent and coercive: Nancy and Bill Sikes.

After a first hour with no romantic ballads, Bart cleverly contrives one with Nancy, the Dodger and Oliver imagining the love lives of aristocrats in the musically beautiful but dramatically curious I’d Do Anything. Then there’s the Fagin problem. Dickens wrote a stereotype of a seedy, greedy grasper that Bart, who was Jewish, reduced – although the role can still invite cliched mannerisms and delivery.

James Brining’s staging solves each problem. Nine-year-old Nicholas Teixeira – chosen for press night from the trio of Olivers who meet post-Victorian child labour laws – is soaring in song and confident in speech. Jenny Fitzpatrick’s Nancy reaches top notes that will be as alarming to theatre roof insurers as Nicole Scherzinger’s in Sunset Boulevard. And Steve Furst’s Fagin is a wry, vigorous eccentric whose only archetype of ethnicity is klezmer-inflected cadenzas on a violin.

Seen so soon after Nicholas Hytner’s London production of Guys and Dolls, which dates from a decade earlier, that show’s strong influence on Bart seems clear: Bart, like Frank Loesser, wrote both music and lyrics, and both shows feature urban crooks played for comedy, and share the songs widely among the cast. As Hytner’s majestic revival suggests, perhaps no other musical will ever match Guys and Dolls’ hit-to-song ratio or flamboyant characterisation – but Bart’s comes closer than most.

Just as Loesser’s songs are too joyous for us to worry that some of his guys have probably killed people, Dickens’ social commentary gets lost under Bart’s essentially optimistic compositions. Brining emphasises the dialogue about Oliver being bought and sold but, for obvious reasons – addressing another issue more troubling now than 63 years ago – this Fagin looks to have been on a safeguarding course for those keeping a house of young male pickpockets. Furst seems to have been contemplating going straight long before he sings, thrillingly, ‘Reviewing The Situation’, with rhymes (duchesses / as much as is; possibly / my boss’ll be) that would please Hammerstein or Sondheim.

Colin Richmond’s darkly scaffolded set is vividly filled by Lucy Hind’s choreography, although someone might try dances in which Fagin’s lads don’t flap bent-elbowed arms like hen’s wings. The audience’s arms, though, will be above their heads applauding.

• At Leeds Playhouse until 27 January