“When you are careless with other people, you bring ruin upon yourself.” The Greatest Showman

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

This may seem a quaint notion, but sometimes it’s nice to have a movie that is simply affirming and joyous and a celebration of what can be best in the human spirit. That is The Greatest Showman‘s raison d’etre. The subject of PT Barnum‘s now-controversial life may seem an unlikely vehicle for such a film, but that is indeed what we have with Hugh Jackman‘s latest. I absolutely loved this movie.

With music by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul, composers of La La Land and the recent Christmas Story Live!, the film will never be accused of being high-art, but then that is not what Barnum‘s stock-in-trade was either. With our present distaste for circuses and with the revisionist history that sees Barnum as less of an inclusive and big-hearted entrepreneur and more of an unethical and selfish opportunist, viewers are best-served to check those preconceptions at the door and approach the film as if Barnum is a mythological figure from American folklore, a la Johnny Appleseed or Paul Bunyan.

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

Barnum (Jackman) chides a theatre critic who has no use for the ringmaster’s brand of populist entertainment, “A theatre critic who can’t find joy in the theatre. Now, who’s a fraud?” It seems to be as much a definition of Barnum’s artistic philosophy as a caution to Twitter trolls in the audience ready to hate on The Greatest Showman‘s gee willkers approach to American cultural history.

Helmed by first-time director Michael Gracey (who had a reported assist from Logan‘s James Mangold) and with a screenplay written by Jenny Bicks and Bill Condon (Dreamgirls, Beauty and the Beast), the film offers a cursory look at the significant and recognizable moments in Barnum’s life, like story beats in an oft-told fable … with a heaping helping of Horatio Alger-ism: we Americans can be whoever and whatever we want to be, regardless how checkered our pasts (hell, just look at the White House and Capitol Hill).

This is not a detailed, cynical, warts-and-all biopic but rather a heartfelt and inspirational allegory (bordering on the twinkling best of Hallmark Hall-of-Fame‘s legendary output) that material success cannot substitute for authentic love. And that is just fine.

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

Hugh Jackman is totally in his element, throwback as he is to a Hollywood of another era where corny was not only king but was embraced and celebrated by the masses. It is a refreshingly positive (albeit whitewashed) take on a legendary American captain of industry – the kind of story-telling that was prevalent in 1950s Tinseltown technicolor fantasias … or that librarians used to read aloud to us third-graders in our elementary school reading circles.

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

However, The Greatest Showman is smart enough to supercharge the proceedings with a percussive, propulsive, almost martial, contemporary pop score to hook a generation of audiences weaned on High School Musical or Glee.

This simplistic approach with its anachronistic score is surprisingly effective, at times both insidiously engaging and pleasantly disarming. Highlights include rousing opener “The Greatest Show,” no-business-like-show-business anthem “Come Alive,” bromantic stomp-duet “The Other Side,” swoony/lurchy ballad “Rewrite the Stars,” and rafter-rattling curtain call “From Now On.”

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

The bones of the story are not dissimilar to those of Barnum!, the 1980 Cy Coleman Broadway stage musical starring Jim Dale and Glenn Close, but the proceedings couldn’t be more fresh or modern. Disney Channel alumni Zendaya and Zac Efron deliver lovely paper doll turns in this 21st century panto-play. Michelle Williams is luminous, simultaneously distant and winsome – arm candy with an iron will – as Barnum‘s stoic wife Charity.

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

The supporting cast is rounded out with a strong team of stage alumni who relish every moment of this big-screen cartoon. Kealla Settle as Lettie Lutz, the “bearded lady,” is one to watch. Her mid-movie barnstormer “This is Me” brings down the house with a can-you-hear-the-people-sing intensity that should leave you exhausted and enraged and damned “woke” … if you have any heart at all.

The filmmakers (tom) thumb their noses at depth, knowing that the best celebration of Barnum’s life as a huckster purveyor of humbug would be to deliver free-wheeling holiday escapism that energizes and enthralls. Yet, embedded within the cotton candy fluff is a timely and haunting message of acceptance and understanding and compassion.

Sociopolitically, the film does continue the troubling trope of “beautiful white dude as multiculti savior.” However, it marries that message to a final act comeuppance for Barnum. Per the film, Barnum’s fatal flaw is always looking past the talent in his midst to see who else might be coming through the door, breaking the most important of hearts in his unyielding aspiration for validation from an American elite that continually rejects his kind. After a final act tragedy, Barnum’s family of freaks confronts him with this brutal truth, licking their wounds, rallying the troupe, and reminding us all that the greatest show exists with those who’ve been loyal to us all along.

It’s all quite obvious and Hollywood-shallow self-serving, but I admit I cried and cheered and stomped my feet. Sometimes the corniest message – the most heartfelt one – is the one we all need to hear again and again. As Swedish Nightingale Jenny Lind (in an ethereal if underdeveloped portrayal by Rebecca Ferguson) warns Barnum, “When you are careless with other people, you bring ruin upon yourself.” Family is what you make it, true success begins at home, and there is a place at the table for us all. Amen. #thisisme


Reel Roy Reviews is now TWO books! You can purchase your copies by clicking here (print and digital). In addition to online ordering at Amazon or from the publisher Open Books, the first book is currently is being carried by BookboundCommon Language Bookstore, and Crazy Wisdom Bookstore and Tea Room in Ann Arbor, Michigan and by Green Brain Comics in Dearborn, Michigan. My mom Susie Duncan Sexton’s Secrets of an Old Typewriter series is also available on Amazon and at Bookbound and Common Language.

Quick cut: Spotlight Players’ production of Barnum … and that’s no humbug!

[Image Source: Spotlight Players]

[Image Source: Spotlight Players]

In the huckster spirit of PT Barnum, this isn’t really a review…but rather a shameless plug for some talented friends of mine, friends currently performing the Cy Coleman musical Barnum with Spotlight Players in Canton, Michigan at the Village of Cherry Hill Theatre.

In 21st century postmodern fashion, though, I should be additionally “transparent” (whatever that silly, overused word really means) and divulge that I was on the Spotlight Players board when this particular show was selected (not to mention chair of the play selection and director selection committees when the musical was on its way through the decision-making process).

Regardless, I urge you to go check out this production of a musical that is rarely performed. You have a unique chance to see this one staged, not to mention presented with great love and energy from a game and talented cast.

Why isn’t the show done much any more? I’m not totally sure – I will admit that there are some book problems. However, it was a precursor of sorts to the modern psychodrama musical where factual biography morphs with more fantastical, metaphorical elements and back again.  In essence, Barnum’s life is told in a pastiche of circus tropes. There are a number of shows that do better service to this structural approach, but this particular one is stuffed with catchy songs and many lovely character moments, particularly between Barnum and his wife Charity.

You have one more weekend to see Spotlight Players’ production, and it is a lot of fun. Clocking in at just over two hours (a blessing in community theatre), the show is briskly paced and performed with aplomb. The ensemble brings great heart, and the principals are a giddy delight. Leo Babcock sparkles as the titular showman, and Cathy Skutch matches him delightfully has Barnum’s saucy, long-suffering wife. The pair exude warmth onstage, particularly during one of the show’s signature songs “The Colors of My Life.”

Featured players Rebecca Winder as Jenny Lind, Tina Paraventi as Joice Heth, Jeff Foust as the Ringmaster,  Jim Jackson as Tom Thumb, and Sarah Rauen (“Black and White”) are all excellent as well. Winder deserves special note for bringing comic zing to Lind, particularly in her first meeting with Barnum, a truly funny moment of linguistic misunderstanding akin to the finest Marx Brothers routines.

Barnum is a tough show to pull off due to the spectacle required, but Spotlight does a fine job using visual tricks of lighting and proportion and makeup, clever choreography, and abstract but effective set pieces to achieve a Big Top atmosphere. In another clever touch, the orchestra, led expertly by music director Richard Alder, remains onstage the whole time as part of the action. And there are even a few novel surprises of the pyrotechnic variety during the climactic number “Join the Circus.”

Give this one a shot – one more weekend to see. Tickets can be purchased at www.spotlightplayersmi.org. You won’t regret it…and that’s no humbug!