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??