A Film Review by Tim Riley
THE GREATEST SHOWMAN (Rated PG) There’s a lot more to famous showman and huckster Phineas T. Barnum than on display in “The Greatest Showman,” as the story does not fully explore his rise from humble beginnings to later-in-Life circus partnership with James A. Bailey and a noteworthy career in politics.
First and foremost, this is a musical enterprise, in which the catchy tunes are fashioned by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul, the creative team behind “La La Land,” the recent television special “A Christmas Story Live!,” and the award-winning Broadway musical “Dear Evan Hansen.”
Hugh Jackman may be forever immortalized as Wolverine in the “X-Men” franchise, but he had a successful turn as the lead in the New York musical “The Boy from Oz,” and his leap to ringmaster and primary melodic voice in “The Greatest Showman” is no fluke.
Let not the idea of an original musical extravaganza in the form of memorable songs cast a cloud on the idea of enjoying “The Greatest Showman,” which is designed, after all, as a piece of escapist entertainment fit for the entire family.
Besides, the charismatic Hugh Jackman takes center stage, so that can’t be off-putting in the least since he stars as the adult P.T. Barnum, a shameless promoter of oddities and curiosities as a form of mass entertainment that soon materializes into a circus.
First, we see Barnum (Ellis Rubin) as the young son of a working-class father striking up an acquaintance with Charity Hallett (Skylar Dunn), the daughter of a wealthy family that predictably looks down upon the Barnums as beneath their station.
Naturally then, in the span of one musical number, Jackman’s Barnum has not only married the adult Charity (Michelle Williams) after working a few conventional jobs, but they dance elegantly on a rooftop and have two wonderful young daughters before the song ends.
Eager to capitalize on the public appetite for entertainment, Barnum goes deep into debt with the purchase of a museum of wax figures and assorted novelties before grasping the concept of featuring an exploitative array of living human curiosities.
Up against some aggressively hostile bigots and a local critic, Barnum assembles a sideshow of the bearded lady Lettie Lutz (Keala Settle), the diminutive General Tom Thumb (Sam Humphrey), and African-American trapeze artist Anne Wheeler (Zendaya).
Wearing a bright red ringmaster jacket, top hat and twirling a cane, Barnum is front and center to orchestrate a spectacle of elephants and lions backing up an eclectic mix of performers also including the hirsute “Dog Boy,” an Irish giant, an enhanced fat man, an albino and others.
Proving to be the master of low-brow entertainment, Barnum incurs the critical wrath of local newspaper critic James Gordon Bennett (Paul Sparks), which serves no other purpose than to put the impresario into a bad light in polite society.
Seeking to bring acceptability to his endeavors, Barnum recruits upper-class New York playwright Phillip Carlyle (Zac Efron), whose excellent society connections help to arrange an audience with Queen Victoria at Buckingham Palace.
This trip to England brings Barnum into contact with noted opera singer Jenny Lind (Rebecca Ferguson), widely known in Europe as “The Swedish Nightingale,” and before long, he’s has her under contract for a concert tour of the United States.
Performing at an opera house to the high society crowd in tuxedos and formal gowns, Jenny Lind causes the type of admiring sensation that Barnum expected and generates a modicum of respect from the critic Bennett for the flamboyant circus promoter’s shot at respectability.
An extended tour across America with the opera singer causes a rift in Barnum’s marriage, a situation not helped by the fact he’s overextended on his finances and the family is evicted from their mansion.
In due course, Barnum turns back to what he really knows best, and after a disastrous fire destroys his business, he regroups with his performers in a tent that represents the future of a traveling circus.
The Bearded Lady, supported by the rest of the gang, makes the most of the big musical number “This is Me,” an anthem to the uniqueness of the circus performers as they push back against the intolerance of local riff-raff.
Another challenge to societal mores comes with Zac Efron’s Phillip falling hard for Zendaya’s pink-haired acrobat and the stirrings of an interracial romance proves awkward as society frowns on crossing racial lines.
“The Greatest Showman” has enough musical razzle-dazzle that it would seem almost fitting for the legend of P.T. Barnum, though one suspects that the ostentatious showman might be perplexed about a modern representation of his storied career.
Nevertheless, Hugh Jackman is effortlessly magnetic, compelling and charming in this role of the American pioneer of popular culture. “The Greatest Showman” undoubtedly takes liberties with his life story, but it is still a wonderfully choreographed entertainment.