There are good reasons why Sweeney Todd, now at the Eureka in a Ray of Light production, has something of a cult following. The Demon Barber of Fleet Street is both better and worse than us. He is purer and more passionate, but he's also a gruesomely creative serial killer. In musical theater history, he's as refreshing as his close shaves — the closest shave you'll ever receive.
Okay, okay, the show does make some concessions to tradition, particularly with its pair of star-crossed lovers. But composer and lyricist Stephen Sondheim and librettist Hugh Wheeler get them and their obligatory heartwarming song out of the way with remarkable alacrity. The real focus, of course, is the barber of the title (Adam Scott Campbell), who after years in exile has returned to a London that inspires him to sing, "There's a hole in the world like a great black pit/ and the vermin of the world inhabit it/ and its morals aren't worth what a pig could spit/ and it goes by the name of London."
Fifteen years previously, Judge Turpin (Ken Brill) banished Sweeney for a crime the barber didn't commit, presumably so the judge could rape Sweeney's wife and adopt Sweeney's daughter Johanna (Jessica Smith), who now of age, provokes a fresh round of lust in the old lecher. Sweeney has already sworn revenge, but when he finds out his wife poisoned herself after the rape, he casts off his last shreds of human compassion and starts killing at the slightest provocation, both to protect himself from prying eyes as he plots the judge's murder and to punish the society that unjustly punished him.
The best part is his means: The victims, persuaded to buy a shave or "a soothing skin massage," walk into their own execution chairs, where Sweeney need only press his assiduously sharpened razor blade a little lower and a little deeper than expected. Then, in its way, the worst pie shop in London, uh, launders the bodies. The baker is Nellie Lovett (Miss Sheldra), a moral relativist to the extreme, particularly when there's a profit or a certain pined-for barber to be had.
With her self-deprecating humor and her way of calling everyone "dear," Nellie is the most likable character onstage — this despite her cavalier savagery. She and the other unsavory denizens of Fleet Street show that Sweeney's vision of London as a corrupt, dog-eat-dog city is not just the delusion of an outcast; the world that created this demon barber, the musical suggests, will likely create many more. Conventionally sympathetic characters summarily sidelined, the show keeps you emotionally distanced but makes up for it by piquing your intellect. Sondheim's score is as dark and dissonant as the story, experimenting with complex syncopations and surprising chord clusters as melodies spiral wildly away from the themes established at the beginnings of songs. His lyrics, too, employ rhymes so clever it's as if you're always waiting for a punch line to resolve: "Ladies in their sensitivities, my lord/ Have a fragile sensibility/ When a girl's emergent/ Probably it's urgent/ You defer to her gentility, my lord."
The material might be rich, but it gets lost in Ray of Light's production. The six-piece band often overwhelms the singers, and many performers fail to take their characters to the heights the script demands. They seem to be playing sympathetic roles in a realistic play rather than figures of comic myth: a rival barber with a fake mustache and Italian accent; a dirty old man who doesn't understand why the father-lover transition might be difficult for his ward; a pie shop assistant who decides he would die for his boss after working in the bakery for about a day. Maya Linke's scene design, with its jagged edges and industrial materials, seems meant to evoke both Sweeney's weapon of choice and the rapidly industrializing world whose burgeoning inequalities ensure Sweeney stays powerless. But her large set pieces impede the actors' natural movement without clearly demarcating the different Fleet Street locales.
The production's main virtue is Campbell's performance of Sweeney. He has a tender baritone and a fierce brow that, when he seethes with rage, takes on the force and coldness of stone. But he too often channels his natural charisma into his character's private hate, which only exacerbates the show's main problem: It's a tepid production of a show of extremes, one in which the characters — but not this cast — sing the hottest of lyrics in the coldest of blood.