For about 35 years, Broadway fans have been waiting for a film musical based on the life of the notorious huckster and circus founder P.T. Barnum. Of course, what most of them had in mind was an adaptation of the Tony-winning musical Barnum (which featured a sensational star turn by Jim Dale). What they’ve gotten instead is Michael Gracey’s over-directed but modestly entertaining The Greatest Showman.
For all its flaws – most notably, an overstuffed plot full of shallow characterizations – there are plenty of reasons for Broadway fans to be happy with the movie. First and foremost, it brings Tony winner Hugh Jackman to the big screen in a film that’s not part of the X-Men franchise. As the feisty, single-minded Barnum, he gets to display his unparalleled charm along with a healthy dash of soulful brooding. And best of all, he gets to sing and dance, although the filmmakers strangely don’t give him the kind of show-stopping number (as in The Boy from Oz) that takes full advantage of his gifts.
Second, the movie is full of folks from the Great White Way. Michelle Williams (last seen as Sally Bowles in the Roundabout’s revival of Cabaret) is quite touching as Barnum’s wife Charity (in this version, a rich society girl who happily leaves her life of luxury behind to run off with Barnum). Keala Settle (most recently in Waitress) is absolutely sensational as Lettie Lutz, aka the Bearded Lady, delivering a performance rich in guts and pathos. The supporting cast includes turns (large and small) from Eric Anderson, Will Swenson, Byron Jennings, Kathryn Meisle, Paul Sparks, Shuler Hensley, Betsy Aidem and other local favorites.
Then there’s the score from recent Tony and Oscar winners Justin Paul and Benj Pasek (Dear Evan Hansen, La La Land). Admittedly, it all sounds surprisingly contemporary for a period piece, but one can’t deny that it’s catchy and often affecting. The movie’s big anthem, “This Is Me,” (led by Settle) is almost a current-day equivalent of “I Am What I Am,” while the charming “A Million Dreams” is a wonderful “I Want” song that encapsulates Barnum’s spirit. Plus, there are few recent ballads I’ve found lovelier than “Rewrite the Stars,” which is beautifully sung by the handsome Zac Efron, who is somewhat bland in the strangely conceived role of rich white playwright Philip Carlyle, and the truly luminous Zendaya, who is perfect as his unlikely love interest, African-American trapeze artist Anne Wheeler.
However, it is perhaps the film’s biggest misstep that, as appealing as these two are, we would ever believe any kind of interracial romance would be accepted in 1850. In addition, the movie’s script (by Bill Condon and Jenny Bicks) also rewrites history to ridiculous effect in its portrayal of Jenny Lind, the shy opera singer dubbed the “Swedish Nightingale” that Barnum brought to America and toured worldwide to great acclaim and financial success. The beautiful Rebecca Ferguson plays Lind as a conniving femme fatale who, when romantically rejected by Barnum, takes revenge on him in a cruel way. (True, she doesn’t boil a bunny, but it’s still a bit overwrought.) Oddly too, the song penned for her (and dubbed by Loren Allred) is a stirring pop-rock ballad called “Never Enough,” which sounds like something Annie Lennox might have recorded, rather than a fitting aria for an operatic soprano.
Ultimately, the film is quite lavish and beautiful to look at – and by the end, it may make you wish the circus would come back to town.