Greatest Showman: A little song, a little dance, a lot of elephant poop

Liam Lacey

Rating:  B minus

The musical The Greatest Showman is a seemingly perfect meeting of form and subject: It's hokum about hokum, billed as "inspired by the imagination of" P.T. Barnum - as distinct from being inspired by his life, from which it deviates liberally.

With its hip-hop choreography, outré John Galliano-like costumes, and pop-up-book production numbers, it’s a modern musical which sticks to antique musical fundamentals: Never give up, be who you are and love will find a way.

As for the story, I would like to quote the immortal words of Jumbo the Elephant's stable boy: "What a load."

 Hugh Jackman as P.T. Barnum sells us a load of elephant poop

Hugh Jackman as P.T. Barnum sells us a load of elephant poop

You see, it's about a gang of misfits. A bearded lady (Keala Settle) and a small person, Tom Thumb (Sam Humphrey) and a pretty African-American trapeze artist with modish pink hair (actress Zendaya, from Spider-Man: Homecoming), who are led by a tall, beaming handsome "normal" guy, P.T. Barnum (Hugh Jackman) who makes all their dreams come true.

No doubt, musicals are fantasies and you can't knock Jackman's commitment. He dances and sings and even raps, sort of, on one of the nine new songs from Justin Paul and Benj Pasek (La La Land and the Broadway musical Dear Evan Hansen). The processed-sounding Paul-Pasek musical numbers typically start low and sincere and a chorus shouts the catchy choruses like football cheers, as the movie follows one inspirational production number after another.

All of this might go down easier if the historic P.T. Barnum were a slightly more consistent inspirational subject. He seems to have been a man of 19th century paradoxes, a flim-flam man and later, a moralist. He owned slaves in his youth, which he later apologized for when he supported abolition.

He also became a politician, a temperance advocate and successful author who wrote a book called The Art of Making Money (interesting fact: P.T. Barnum is an anagram of "Nab Trump"). For all his accomplishments, it's a painful stretch to portray him as a champion of human dignity.

 One of Barnum's most notorious acts, not included in the movie, was an elderly, disabled African-American slave woman named Joice Heth who he promoted as the 161-year-old nurse of the young George Washington. When she died, he charged an audience 50 cents each to see her autopsy, which, I think everyone can agree, would make a terrible scene in a Christmas movie and it's a good thing it was left out. 

Rather than dealing with unpleasant realities, The Greatest Showman is synthesized from various fictional sources.  The script, written by Jenny Bicks and Bill Condon, takes a dash of Charles Dickens, a bit of Horatio Alger, and that modern 'inclusive" stuff.

The Dickensian part portrays Phineas as the impoverished son of a tailor, who falls in love with a little rich girl, Charity, at the home of one of his father's clients. Years later, Phineas marries Charity (at this point played by a badly underused Michelle Williams) and dedicates his life to giving her a beautiful home and things.

The Horatio Alger? Phineas sells newspapers, he works on the railway and deceives the bank with some worthless shipping deeds to bankroll his first venture, a wax museum. What a guy! The wax museum becomes a house of curiosities, including animals and a freak show, and eventually the circus where the common folk can have fun.

But Barnum also wants respectability, and pursues socialite playwright, Phillip Carlyle (Zac Efron), to his side. Soon, Phillip joins the circus and falls in love with the pretty trapeze artist, and stands up to his snooty racist parents who find this open consorting with a black woman scandalous. (The sequence got me thinking of another showbiz tradition that has recently been in the news lately: When you're an African-American trapeze artist in a 19th century circus and the white boss starts hitting on you, what exactly are your options?)

The racists and snobs aren't the only problem Barnum and his cronies face. There are protestors against the immorality of the circus, and a fire and financial ruin and even a risk of marital infidelity. When Phineas goes on tour to bring opera to the masses, he accompanies the beautiful Jenny Lind, "the Swedish nightingale" (she's played by actress Rebecca Ferguson, though the voice running up the octaves in the song, Never Enough, belongs to The Voice contestant, Loren Allred). Phineas's wife, Charity, is rightfully worried. The conniving Swede stages a kiss with Phineas to promote her career. (In real life Lind was a conservative person who parted ways with Barnum because she got sick of his crass marketing.)  

When things look bleak for Barnum, the team of "oddities" band together and sing rafter-raising anthems, like This Is Me, led by the Bearded Lady. The song is the Born this Way of the facial hair-afflicted. Because Keala Settle performs the number so well and passionately, it’s terrifically moving. Sometimes even hokum has its moments of greatness. 

The Greatest Showman. Directed by Michael Gracey.  Written by Jenny Bicks and Bill Condon.  Songs by Justin Paul and Benj Pasek. Starring: Hugh Jackman, Michelle Williams, Zac Efron, Zendaya and Rebecca Ferguson.  Starts Wednesday, Dec. 20 at Cineplex Yonge-Dundas, Silvercity Yorkdale, Silvercity Yonge-Eglinton,  Silvercity Yorkdale and  Cineplex Empress Walk.