Main Cast: Hugh Jackman, Zac Efron
Director: Michael Gracey
I freely admit that I’m a sucker for a good production number. Yet I very, very rarely seek them out. Why? Who knows, it’s just one of the many quirks of my movie fandom. It is unlikely that I ever would have seen The Greatest Showman had it not been for a glowing recommendation from my daughter. Maybe I should listen to her more often?
Anyway. The Greatest Showman is a musical inspired by the early days of P.T. Barnum’s Greatest Show on Earth. Hugh Jackman plays Phineas T. Barnum, and we meet him when he is just a boy (he’s not Hugh Jackman yet at this point, he’s Ellis Rubin), working alongside his tailor father and dreaming of being rich and successful one day and marrying a wealthy customer’s daughter. Flash forward a few decades and he has achieved one of his goals – the girl is his. Charity (Michelle Williams) loves him despite his modest means and the couple has two daughters. After being dismissed from his day job, P.T. decides it’s time to make his move, and with hitches aplenty and much song and dance, a circus is born.
Now, don’t mistake this for the real story, with its entire gritty underbelly. This is a fantasy account, with only enough angst to create a little dramatic tension. Barnum’s “oddities”, including a bearded lady with an INCREDIBLE voice, are soft pedaled and there is no mention made of the animal cruelty of the circus world. One of the reasons I wasn’t initially interested in the film was my distaste for those aspects of the business. You’ll need to just put away thoughts of “the rest of the story” and go with what is here, and what is here is glorious.
From word one, Hugh Jackman owns this movie. At age 49 he’s been playing the song and dance game for a lot of years- and that experience shows. He leads this ensemble cast with a sure hand and an absolutely contagious joy that permeates the entire film.
(that trailer gave you a few goosebumps, didn’t it?)
His co-stars are wonderful. Keala Settle as Lettie Lutz (the bearded lady) is definitely the standout with her powerhouse voice and her position as head of the performers. Zendaya and Efron are solid as a performer and a junior partner quietly embarking on an inter-racial romance at a time when such a thing was dangerously scandalous. Theirs is not the strongest story line, nor are they the strongest performances, but it’s a nice subplot. Michelle Williams smiles more than I’ve ever seen in her role as Mrs. Barnum and she has a lovely, soft way with her songs that’s really sweet. Rebecca Ferguson has a powerhouse moment as Jenny Lind (a real life part of the Barnum story) but sadly is the only member of the cast who did not do her own vocals – credit for her incredible song goes to Loren Allred.
The set design and costuming are fantastic – they reminded me a lot of Mary Poppins. Everything is a little over the top, not quite real, but obviously set in the early 20th century. It gives the movie a rich fantasy feel and makes it much easier to forget about the unsavory things that are left out. And the music! And the choreography, oh my, the choreography! The production numbers are full and noisy and filled with a kind of joy that’s missing from…pretty much everything. The songs themselves are catchy enough to have been stuck in my head since I saw the film and the soundtrack is understandably selling like hotcakes.
Overall, The Greatest Showman is the kind of movie that people who like musicals should run out and buy immediately (I may buy it and I never buy ANYTHING). Hugh Jackman so competently leads his cast through the rigors of making a light, touching (not at all realistic) story play out through song and dance that it feels effortless. Put any and all objections to modern circuses out of your mind and just enjoy this fun and beautifully executed fantasy loosely based on a real showman.