The musical biography “The Greatest Showman” chronicles the life of P.T. Barnum, and it’s rather like one of Barnum’s shows in its own exuberant way: full of color, flash, spectacle and probably a fair amount of bunk.
Time to run away and join the circus, if only for a couple of hours.
Hugh Jackman stars as Barnum, and he brings the panache and glee only a dyed-in-the-wool song-and-dance man can to the project. (Remember that before he was discovered for “X-Men,” he was a musical-theater guy, notably as Curly in a revival of “Oklahoma!”)
Jackman’s Barnum puts on a brave face when he, a poor tailor’s son, romances the wealthy Charity (Michelle Williams), promising her a life of adventure and excitement. In 19th-century New York, though, he can only give Charity and their two daughters a rundown flat with a leaky roof. But it’s a happy life, as Barnum regales his daughters with stories of far-off lands.
Then Barnum hits upon the idea of turning those stories into a museum of curiosities. The museum is a bust at first, until Barnum listens to his girls’ advice to feature living acts.
Thus begins Barnum’s quest to find oddities who can perform, from the little person (Sam Humphrey) he rechristens Gen. Tom Thumb to the Bearded Lady (played by Broadway star and Southern Utah University alum Keala Settle).
As the circus begins to draw crowds, along with the harsh pans of a newspaper critic (Paul Sparks), Barnum seeks out Philip Carlyle (Zac Efron), son of a rich society family, to become a junior partner. It’s Carlyle who gets Barnum and his troupe an audience with Queen Victoria, boosting their international renown.
The European trip also puts Barnum in the circle of opera singer Jenny Lind (Rebecca Ferguson), “The Swedish Nightingale,” whom Barnum sees as his passport to respectability — even if it means snubbing his circus family and putting his marriage to Charity at risk.
Carlyle, meanwhile, unexpectedly falls in love with the show’s alluring trapeze artist, Anne Wheeler (played by Zendaya). The romance gives the movie a social conscience, as Anne’s dark skin scandalizes Carlyle’s upper-crust parents. It also provides the most dynamic duet of the show: “Rewrite the Stars,” which has Efron and Zendaya singing while swinging on ropes and reminds Utah movie lovers of the days when Efron made the “High School Musical” trilogy here. (Speaking of Utah connections, Hale Centre Theatre scion and Broadway star Will Swenson is here, also, playing Barnum’s father in flashbacks.)
The musical numbers, written by “La La Land” writers Benj Pasek and Justin Paul, are powerful and moving — particularly Settle’s rousing anthem “This Is Me,” which you can expect to hear her sing at the Academy Awards in March, and Jackman’s table-setting opener “This Is the Greatest Show.” The dance numbers have plenty of energy, though rookie director Michael Gracey’s shot selection is sometimes haphazard.
Most of the movie’s cast — notably Jackman, Williams, Efron, Zendaya and Settle — deliver the songs in full voice and with energy to burn. (Ferguson is the only major cast member to have her singing voice dubbed, by one-time “The Voice” finalist and Weber State alum Loren Allred.) Best of all is Jackman, giving a commanding turn as the impresario who turns his life into a circus with himself as ringmaster. Jackman takes the title “The Greatest Showman” to heart, and it’s his drive that turns this romanticized biography into a great show.
The Greatest Showman
Hugh Jackman gives his all in this high-energy musical biography of P.T. Barnum.
Where • Theaters everywhere.
When • Opens Wednesday, Dec. 20.
Rating • PG for thematic elements, including a brawl.
Running time • 106 minutes.