The Greatest Showman

 

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The second musical biography of P.T. Barnum is an entertaining extravaganza told in bold strokes.

 

Greatest Showman, The
  

The Greatest Showman is a rare thing indeed. It is not only a big-budget, big-screen musical, but it’s an original one from a first-time director (Australia’s Michael Gracey). Of course, its star, Hugh Jackman, is no stranger to the stage musical, having made his West End debut in Oklahoma!, won a Tony on Broadway for The Boy from Oz and starred in the film adaptation of Les Misérables. There’s an echo of the last-named, as the character Jackman plays steals a loaf of bread as a young lad, before going on to put his dreams into practice. And there’s something ineffably engaging about a man who follows his dreams. In this case it’s the true story of Phineas T. Barnum, who emerged from the gutter to become a purveyor of magic and spectacle for a worldwide audience.

 

Jackman is a good choice for the role. He has already played a nineteenth stage magician (in Christopher Nolan’s The Prestige), but more importantly he has the youthful good looks to play a man who starts out young before embarking on a lifetime of adventure, romance and adversity. Barnum was dubbed ‘the Prince of Humbug’ and it takes an actor of Jackman’s dash and charm to make us root for him. Today, Barnum’s story would seem to be more relevant than ever as he embraced the socially unconventional and gave them a platform to grow – his “family from the shadows.” Of course, Barnum’s initial concern was to promote his ‘anomalies’ for commercial gain, but he did give them a life that they would never have had otherwise. While his initial enterprise, a waxwork museum, failed to capture the public imagination, he embarked on a more rakish project by mounting a “freak show,” a song-and-dance extravaganza featuring a bearded lady, Siamese twins, a dwarf, a giant, and so on. The New York public loved it, although it drew both critical disgust and protests from a prejudiced, vocal minority. Then Queen Victoria requested an audience with P.T. Barnum…

 

For a good old-fashioned musical, a cast of the physically unorthodox – already given the spotlight by such December releases as Wonder and Sanctuary – is bit of a jolt. Yet this modern sensibility is nicely complemented by some innovative, wildly energetic choreography (courtesy of Mathieu Leopold). It seems a step too far, though, to introduce a tacked-on love story between a rich white boy (Zac Efron) and a trapeze artist of mixed heritage (the sensational Zendaya). It might have served the film better if some of its cast of unique ‘exhibits’ had been provided with their own backstory. Still, it’s a vibrant move in the right direction.

 

JAMES CAMERON-WILSON

 

Cast: Hugh Jackman, Zac Efron, Michelle Williams, Rebecca Ferguson, Zendaya, Ellis Rubin, Skylar Dunn, Keala Settle, Paul Sparks, Gayle Rankin, Austyn Johnson, Cameron Seely, Byron Jennings.

 

Dir Michael Gracey and (uncredited) James Mangold, Pro Laurence Mark, Peter Chernin and Jenno Topping, Ex Pro James Mangold, Screenplay Jenny Bicks and Bill Condon, Ph Seamus McGarvey, Pro Des Nathan Crowley, Ed Tom Cross, Robert Duffy, Joe Hutshing, Michael McCusker, Jon Poll and Spencer Susser, Music John Debney and John Trapanese, with songs by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul, Costumes Ellen Mirojnick, Choreography Mathieu Leopold.

 

Chernin Entertainment/Seed Productions/Laurence Mark Productions/TSG Entertainment-20th Century Fox.

104 mins. USA. 2017. Rel: 26 December 2017. Cert. PG.