Woman Around Town’s Editor Charlene Giannetti and writers for the website talk with the women and men making news in New York, Washington, D.C., and other cities around the world. Thanks to Ian Herman for his wonderful piano introduction.

Keala Settle

Hugh Jackman Is The Greatest Showman


Less than a year after the largest circus folded up its tent for good, we have a film that celebrates the spectacle of what was once the greatest show on earth. And portraying the iconic showman is the multi-talented Hugh Jackman, demonstrating the versatily to go from playing the immortal mutant Wolverine to dazzling us with his skills as a song and dance man. With this role the Austrailian actor adds to his impressive musical resume, which includes: Jean Valjean in Les Misérables (Golden Globe Award); Curly McLain in Oklahoma! (West End, London, Olivier nomination); and, Broadway’s The Man from Oz (Tony Award). In The Greatest Showman, Jackman occupies center ring as P.T. Barnum, who founded the show that became the Barnum & Bailey Circus, bringing to audiences a collection of off-beat entertainment that was as shocking as it was thrilling. 

The Greatest Showman is not a biopic, instead spotlighting the high – and low – points of Barnam’s life and career. But the main theme focuses on Barnum’s philiosphy: “Whatever you do, do it with all your might.” A secondary, but just as forceful theme, is one of inclusion. Barnum’s shows brought together “oddities,” people who had been shunned by society because of their deformities, but soon formed a family, found a home, and stood together to fight those who continued to villify them. In today’s political climate, those feelings are sure to resonate with many in the audience.  

Zac Efron and Hugh Jackman

The film represents a labor of love by those involved. Director Laurence Mark and co-screenwriter Bill Condon (along with Jenny Bicks) first came up with the idea after working on the 2009 Acdemy Awards broadcast and being impressed with Jackman’s performance as host. “I thought, wow, this guy’s the greatest showman on earth – and that’s when I went to P.T. Barnum in my head,” Mark said, according to the film’s press notes. Shortly after, Mark approached Jackman with the idea of playing Barnum and got him on board. Michael Gracey, who views Barnum as a visionary, the Steve Jobs of his day, soon signed on as director.

The song-writing team of Benj Pasek and Justin Paul, who had not yet gained fame for Dear Evan Hansen (2016 Tony Award for Best Original Score), or for La La Land (2017 Academy Award for Best Original Song, “City of Stars”), were hired after the team commissioned samples from dozens of songwriters. While the film is a period piece represented by the story, scenic design, and costumes, the songs (pop) and choreography (hip hop) are contemporary. The exuberant opening number, “The Greatest Show” features Barnum, dressed as the ringmaster leading the circus cast in the first of many dance numbers. (Viewers will be reminded of the energetic “Another Day of Sun” which opened La La Land.) It gets the film off to a rousing start.

Hugh Jackman and Michelle Williams

Phineas Taylor Barnum was born in Bethel, Connecticut in 1810. As a young boy (played in the film by Ellis Rubin), Barnum helped  his father, Philo (Will Swenson), who worked as a tailor. Although the youth caught the eye of Charity (Skylar Dunn), the daughter of one of his father’s wealthy clients, Barnum was acutely aware of the social hierarchy that placed his family on a lower rung. That rejection would fuel Barnum’s passion to succeed on a grand scale, especially after he marries Charity (Michelle Williams) and pledges to give her the life she deserves. For her part, Charity actually seems happy escaping her gilded lifestyle for a much simpler one where she cares for her two daughters, Caroline (Austyn Johnson) and Helen (Cameron Seely), cleans their small apartment, and even hangs laundry on the building’s roof. Charity, however, isn’t oblivious to what she’s signed on for with Barnum. Williams, who has a lovely although not powerful voice, conveys those conflicted feelings in “Tightrope.” But Williams’ glowing presence serves as a counterpoint to Barnum during the dark times when he suffers setbacks.  

After losing his boring job as a clerk (the company closes down), Barnum redoubles his efforts to follow his dream. Soon he’s operating “Barnum’s American Museum,” a solid brick building located on Manhattan’s Lower East Side. The attraction evolves from displays of objects to ones that feature the oddities: Lettie Lutz, the bearded lady (a terrific Keala Settle); Tom Thum (Sam Humphrey); Dog Boy (Luciano Acuna Jr.), to name a few. Director Gracey handles these characters with skill and sensitivity, allowing them to evolve from reluctant participants in Barnum’s circus to fully formed performers finding their rightful places in the show. Particularly impressive is Settle, whose solo “This Is Me” would have stopped the show on Broadway.

Barnum’s families – his personal one and his professional one – come apart when he becomes enamoured of the “Swedish Nightingale,” Jenny Lind, and convinces her to go on tour in the U.S. While Rebecca Ferguson, also Swedish, has appeared in many films, including The Girl on the Train, Florence Foster Jenkins, and Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation, her role as Lind will certainly bring her the attentiion of a wider audience. Still, after such a build up of Lind’s talents, Ferguson’s performance of “Never Enough” falls short. The role required a singer whose stature was equal or larger than Lind’s. A Lady Gaga perhaps.

Zac Efron and Zendaya

Kudos to Tiffany Little Canfield and Bernard Telsey for casting Zac Efron and Zendaya as the miss-matched couple who finally defy the odds and come together. Philip Carlisle (Efron) leaves behind his comfortable upper class life to join Barnum’s circus and almost immediately is smitten by Zendaya’s Anne Wheeler, a trapeze artist. Efron, who has acted in musicals since he was a child, is more than up to the challenge of singing and dancing opposite Jackman. He’s lost none of the boyish charm he once displayed when he starred in the Disney Channel’s High School Musical. Zendaya, another Disney alum (she current produces and stars in the channel’s K.C. Undercover, can now add high-wire antics to her list of talents. (She apparently did some of the scenes without a net!) This gal is one to watch.

The Greatest Showman is great entertainment, but it’s also a film about the power of imagination and what an individual can achieve with inspiration, dedication, and a lot of hard work. While younger viewers may not be familiar with P.T. Barnum, they will certainly appreciate this story and see similarities with the many creatives genuises whose ideas and inventions continue to change the way we live and work. It’s a story that never grows old. 

Photos by Niko Tavernise courtesy of 20th Century Fox

Waitress – Heart and Talent, But…


On the one hand, Waitress is yet another story of a blue collar, abused woman who finds the strength to walk out of a loveless marriage into an independent life. On the other, its setting – a southern Pie Shop/Diner and ancillary characters are so winning, the story almost seems fresh.

This is partially due to one of the most well written Books created for a musical in as long as I can remember. Author Jessie Wilson is smart, sensitive, insightful, and humorous. She reveals more about a character in a few lines than others attempt in paragraphs when not dependent on lyrics. (More about these later.) Brava. It’s also attributable to some splendid performances.

Keala Settle, Jessie Mueller, Kimiko Glenn

By all rights this should be Jessie Mueller’s second Tony Award. The artist acts as well as she sings (here with a perfect southern accent), thinks before our eyes, and offers the kind of universal, everywoman appeal we haven’t had in a Broadway leading lady for some time. How long has it been since you were moved during a musical?

For those of you unfamiliar with the film, Jenna (Jessie Mueller), is married to sullen, demeaning, beer guzzling Earl (Nick Codero) who demands every penny she earns. The actor literally makes one wince he’s so convincing. Beaten down/fearful and unable to imagine managing alone, she sticks. (We learn her father was like Earl.)

Jenna doubles as waitress and talented pie baker at a highway Diner/Pie Shop run by cliché/irascible Cal (a pitch perfect Eric Anderson). On the menu are, in part: Wake Up and Smell the Coffee Pie, Devil’s Food Oasis Pie, Ginger Snap Out of It Pie, and Humble Crumble Rhubarb Pie. Throughout the piece, the young woman muses on recipes with titles that are metaphors of what’s going on in her life.

Keala Settle, Kimiko Glenn

Jenna’s only emotional support come from her fellow servers, Sassy, smart-alek, grounded Becky (Keala Settle) and gawky, virginal, Dawn (Kimiko Glenn), whom the ladies are trying to ease into the dating pool. Settle has a fine R & B voice and acts up a storm in her modest role. Glenn’s voice walks the line of screechy, but the actress delivers comedy with flair.

Flinty diner regular, Joe (Dakin Matthews), whose meal stipulations are exacting, also turns out to be unexpectedly perceptive about and sympathetic to Jenna’s difficulties. Unsurprisingly, the veteran actor is charming.

The diner, as conceived by Set Designer Scott Pask is cheerful-Hollywood-musical appealing if you don’t take notice of the piano loaded up with pies and the ostensibly invisible, on-stage band. (Is this necessary?!) Kitchen scenes are called out by wheeled, gridwork, storage shelves making transitions fluid. An ever present backdrop of bleak roadway with telephone poles reminds us where we are.

One night, Earl plies Jenna with liquor and, much to her shock and distress, impregnates her. (Betrayed By My Eggs Pie) Confection in hand, she visits her gynecologist only to discover the woman’s retired. Instead she finds the newly installed, sweet but seemingly bumbling Dr. Pomatter (Drew Gehling). Jenna tells him she’d prefer not to be congratulated.

Drew Gehling, Jessie Mueller

The two are immediately attracted. Though the doc declares he’s given up sugar, she leaves her pie. Watching him hesitantly sniff, taste, then gorge on it with eyes glazing over is magical. The audience erupts. Her concoctions, he later tells Jenna, are “Biblically good.”

Drew Gehling, with whom I am unfamiliar, is enchanting. The Andrew Garfield lookalike is progressively drawn, besotted, and lustful with such gusto and authenticity, he take us unquestioningly along. Thespian skills include physical comedy, an engaging voice and the ability to shift to believable gravitas.

As Jenna’s belly grows, she and Pomatter give in to a needful, exhilarating affair observed by wry Nurse Norma (Charity Angel Dawson). Stage direction of the couple’s encounters is exuberant, credible and rather hot. Along the way, Earl discovers his wife is pregnant and makes her promise never to love the baby more than him. This, he obtusely assumes, cements their commitment. (White Knuckle Cream Pie.)

Nick Cordero, Jessie Mueller

The only plausible answer to Jenna’s situation appears with the announcement of a pie contest whose prize is $20,000. Hopeful of escape, she starts to sequester money around the house for the entrance fee. At leisure after losing his job “…so it looks like you’ll be payin’ the bills around here,” Earl finds the cash. He’s furious. Now what?!

A secondary storyline involves Dawn’s resistant involvement with Ogie (the masterfully cast Christopher Fitzgerald) whom she initially connects with online. Her suitor is a geeky looking (think Book of Mormon) tax auditor and amateur magician who only eats white foods on Wednesday. Ogie turns up at the diner and doggedly refuses to leave until promised at least a second date. He knows what he wants.

Christopher Fitzgerald, Kimiko Glenn, Aisha Jackson

“Never Ever Getting Rid of Me” is one of the best numbers in the show, not the least because of the fleet-footed, pixilated Mr. Fitzgerald who highjacks our hearts. Not since he played Og (from Og to Ogie), the leprechaun in Finian’s Rainbow, has the actor had an opportunity like this to excel. Spot-on timing, priceless expressions, and a spastic jig are but a few examples of virtuosity. The things Ogie and Dawn have in common couldn’t be more quirky and amusing. A later glimpse at Revolutionary interest is inspired.

Waitress may be the best, warmest, least fussy staging ever executed by Director Diane Paulus. While we’re familiar with her all-bets-are-off production numbers – these, in fact, seem more character specific – intimate scenes are executed with restraint and finesse.

Choreographer Lorin Latarro makes his dances organic and fun.

Jessie Mueller, Dakin Matthews

NOW, lets talk about music and lyrics, the least effective part of the show. But for one or two songs, Sara Bareilles’ music is close to tuneless, her lyrics so pedestrian as to pass with little effect, her orchestrations dense. How she managed to feature in this production is a wonder.

Costumes by Suttirat Anne Larlab show real knowledge of locale, economics, and personality. Jonathan Dreans’s Sound Design is poor. Bass and drums too often drown out lyrics. Balance is nonexistent.

Photos by Joan Marcus
Opening: Jessie Mueller

Book by Jessie Nelson
Music & Lyrics by Sara Barielles
Based on the film written by Adrienne Shelly
Directed by Diane Paulus
Brooks Atkinson Theatre
256 West 47th Street