The Greatest Showman starring Hugh Jackman as circus maximizer P.T. Barnum is just getting started when the bearded lady sings.
The beard is fake but Keala Settle’s voice is for real. Her song is This Is Me, an anthem for the human oddities Barnum collected on his way to the big top, or anyone feeling odd sometimes. It’s a showstopper in a musical of many, another soaring original score from the composers of La La Land and Dear Evan Hansen.
The Greatest Showman is their third ring, a circus extravaganza built on pillars of classic musical style that La La Land only brushed against. Nearly as old-fashioned as its 19th century period, yet the songs by Oscar and Tony winners Benj Pasek and Justin Paul always tug at modern emotions, ambitions and download demographics.
Here, they address serious issues of love, greed and intolerance with unshakable melodies and lyrics. A Million Dreams send Barnum from boyhood to financially strapped fatherhood. Respectability becomes temptation (Never Enough). Grotesque misfits that Barnum exploits stir public rage although not as much as an interracial couple wishing to Rewrite the Stars.
Out-of-nowhere director Michael Gracey accommodates their songs with a Luhrmann-esque swirl of sight and sound; Moulin Rouge! without the cover tunes. The late-19th century and circus settings give Gracey plenty of eye candy to dish out whenever his game, gifted actors aren’t stealing the camera.
Jackman’s proficiency in musical theater is unquestioned after The Boy From Oz on Broadway and Les Miserables on film. P.T. Barnum is a outsize character matching his talent, duly romanticized to suit a former sexiest man alive.
There’s no neo-musical realism to The Greatest Showman, no settling for Ryan Gosling’s mutter because "real people sing that way." Jackman croons to balconies that aren’t there, a throwback hybrid of Howard Keel’s booming swagger in Gene Kelly’s athletic dancing shoes. Stars don’t get turns like this often. Jackman nails it.
He’s ably matched by Zac Efron as Barnum’s business partner Philip Carlyle in a saloon negotiation number (The Other Side) complete with shot glass choreography. Philip’s infatuation with a black trapeze artist (Zendaya) leads to an aerial duet joining the clothesline sheets wind-dancing like Rockettes as Gracey’s most memorable touches.
One surprise among the stars: Who knew Michelle Williams as Barnum’s wife, Charity, can sing and dance as well as she does here? Williams gets her chance to suffer as usual on screen but this other side is delightful. On the other hand, the entire circus troupe comprised of unknowns like Settle is a talented foundation for spectacle.
The Greatest Showman is the feel-good (and feel good about it) movie every holiday season needs. P.T. Barnum is famous for saying there’s a sucker born every minute and he’s still right. For 105 minutes I’m a sucker for his movie, that may not be the greatest show on Earth but close enough.
Contact Steve Persall at [email protected] or (727) 893-8365. Follow @StevePersall.