Review – Wolverine Can Dance! (“The Greatest Showman”)

Hugh Jackman, a fixture with the Marvel’s cinematic universe as Wolverine, hangs up his Adamantium claws for a top hat & cane, and shows off his new mutant powers… singin’ and dancin’! What will Professor X ever think of this?

Based loosely (very, very loosely) on the life of P.T. Barnum, we catch a glimpse of Phineas as a poor lad (Ellis Ruben) who’s in love with a super-rich, prim & proper young lady named Charity (Skylar Dunn). But, alas, they’re separated by class, wealth, and age… until years later when older Phineas (Jackman) weds the older Charity (Michelle Williams) and they have two beautiful little girls, Caroline & Helen (Austyn Johnson & Cameron Seely). But they’re still poor as church mice (I never understood that metaphor, but…) until one day Phineas gets a crazy idea: he opens his Barnum’s Museum in town, stocked with weird and strange oddities. What a great idea, right?

It fails miserably. But wait, how about putting on a show inside with singing and dancing freaks? Siamese twins, a dog-faced boy, diminutive Tom Thumb (Sam Humphrey), a fat man, a bearded lady who can really belt out a song (Kealea Settle), a brother/sister acrobat team, and more! People flock to see ’em and Phineas is rich, but not entirely happy. Y’see, it’s those upper-class twits in town that reject his show and he wants, nay, needs their approval. This is where rich & bored playwright Phillip Carlyle (Zac Efron) comes to Phineas’ attention.

Hiring Carlyle as his junior apprentice, Phineas now can expand his newly dubbed Barnum’s Circus horizons. How? Meet Swedish singing superstar Jenny Lind (Rebecca Ferguson), an opera virtuoso (who never sings any opera. . .hmmm) that Phineas meets in London. Charmed by her incredible looks, he signs her up on the spot to a fabulous U.S. tour, even though he’ll neglect his family back home. Naturally, with Phineas away and the tour going like gangbusters (another weird metaphor I’m not sure about), the Circus, the performing freaks, and Mrs. Barnum all suffer. Oh, and did I mention the racist protestors picketing outside the building? Yeah, there’s that too.

There’s also a secondary story involving upper-class Carlyle and his growing affection for the lowly acrobat, Anne Wheeler (Zendaya), a love affair not only sneered at by her brother, but also by Carlyle’s elite-class parents. Ah! But let it never be said that tragedies like this don’t fix themselves by the third act. Yes, the Circus AND Phineas’ marriage get into serious trouble, but they get a bushel barrel of left-field resolution, thanks to screenwriters Jenny Bix (the Sex in the City TV series) and Bill Condon (Chicago) both, apparently, not interested in any historical fact.

Like I said, this loosely based musical omits quite a bit of P.T. Barnum’s real story, like him having four girls, he founded a newspaper, was staunchly political, and openly lied, cheated, and swindled the public to make a buck… and they loved him for it! There’s not even a mention of James Bailey, his Circus partner that made Barnum world famous!

Anyway, this IS a musical, and a few of the songs are quite nice, others are very good, and the rest are forgettable and auto-tuned, but all are your typical “Broadway-style”, with snappy, well-rehearsed choreography. Jackman is right at home here, singing and dancing with ease, along with Efron, surprisingly. Who knew?

Director Michael Gracey (his directorial debut, no less!) must have studied the directorial techniques of Damien Chazelle (La La Land), Rob Marshall (Chicago, Into The Woods), and Baz Luhrmann (Moulin Rouge, The Great Gatsby) to achieve his unique sweeping style and dazzling transitions. Sometimes shot like a slickly produced MTV music video, his camera moves are excellent, especially for a newbie filming a full-on musical. Bravo! But even with Gracey’s splendid direction, the story/script can’t compare to the original Broadway musical, Barnum, that had SO much more in music, story, and content. WHY didn’t they adapt THAT musical?? 

Barnum! (1986)
Long before The Greatest Showman, there was this outstanding Broadway musical about the life of P.T. Barnum starring the Phantom himself, Michael Crawford. Why THIS  particular musical wasn’t adapted into a film is a mystery; it’s SO much better!
In this lively filmed London stage musical set in the middle of the 19th Century, we have Phineas Taylor Barnum, a self-proclaimed flim-flam man who uses humbug (lies) to give the people colorful entertainment, much to the ire of his ‘black & white’ wife, Charity (Eileen Battye), who wants Taylor (as she calls him) to lead a simple, dull life in a clock factory. Giving in reluctantly, she allows him to buy and run his crazy scheme: an American Museum filled with the wildest attractions imaginable. And all this for $1. Wow!
But after that museum burns down accidentally, Barnum isn’t deterred. He buys Jumbo the elephant and hires “General” Tom Thumb (Paul Miller) as attractions for his traveling show, not to mention becoming the manager for the non-English speaking famous Swedish opera singer, Jenny Lind (Christine Collier), of whom Barnum takes quite a shine to. He accompanies Jenny on tour, leaving Charity behind, which naturally causes tension in their marriage. Although all seems to be going well for Barnum, he finds that life without Charity is miserable, and he decides to break ties with Jenny and return home to the woman he loves.
Upon his return to Charity, he promises to give up his “colorful” life for the more sedate life SHE desires for him. After a failed stint running a clockwork factory and an attempt to build his own city, Barnum turns to politics; which fails due to no popular interest. Charity realizes how important his talents and passion are in his life and allows him to inject color and life into his campaign. It works. He is elected Mayor of Bridgeport, and the two of them recognize the value in each other’s approach to life and how they complement one another. Barnum is prepared to run for Senator, but Charity dies suddenly, leaving Barnum devastated and alone.
James Bailey (of the famous Barnum & Bailey Circus) arrives and offers him the chance to “Join the Circus”. Initially resisting, he relents and joins Bailey, and they form the famous traveling circus. And the rest is history. Others have graced the stage as Barnum (Jim Dale, for one), but Crawford nails the role with electricity and the story/musical is captivating,  filled with real circus performers, terrific choreography, and catchy songs. Once you see it, you’ll wonder why they didn’t transfer THIS stage musical onto the silver screen like they did with so many others (Chicago, Les Miserables, Sweeney Todd). This entire filmed stage musical is available for free on YouTube.   

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