Review: Hugh Jackman Isn’t Quite the Greatest Showman in an Arena
Hugh Jackman is a shape-shifting master of showbiz: as the big-screen Wolverine, ripped and brooding; as a charismatic song-and-dance man, ripped and Broadway.
Arena concert tours, though, are their own special beast, and in the vastness of Madison Square Garden on Friday night, where he performed with a 22-piece orchestra and a team of acrobatic dancers, he never did fit all those thousands of fans in the palm of his hand.
“We’re going to get to know each other a little better by the end of the night,” Mr. Jackman promised a couple of numbers in, before he cast off the jacket and bow tie that went with his body-hugging tux pants.
But for all his razzle-dazzle over two and a half hardworking hours — starting with a pair of percussive pop numbers from the 2017 movie musical “The Greatest Showman,” in which he starred as P.T. Barnum — there was an inescapable sense of being kept at a distance, of Mr. Jackman holding himself in reserve.
He was a little awkward speaking about his own life, even in scripted patter; slipping into a character’s skin, he appeared much more at ease. But he also seemed conquered by the scale of the room, uncertain how to make the electric connection of live performance when so many of us were so far away. Fortunately — even thrillingly — he had some guest artists who knew how to pull that off.
The tour, titled “The Man. The Music. The Show.,” touched down at the Garden for three performances and continues across the United States before heading to Mr. Jackman’s native Australia in August and returning to North America in October. Packed with musical highlights from his idiosyncratic career, it borrows from two of his stage shows, “The Boy From Oz” — for which he won a 2004 Tony Award as the Australian composer and entertainer Peter Allen, a high-camp role he also inhabits here — and “Hugh Jackman, Back on Broadway.”
It draws most rewardingly, though, from “The Greatest Showman,” and from his relationship with that film’s songwriters, Benj Pasek and Justin Paul.
The night’s first moving moment arrived with a song from their Tony-winning musical “Dear Evan Hansen.” With Mr. Jackman playing piano at the start of “You Will Be Found,” the number deepened into a startling gorgeousness when the New York City Gay Men’s Chorus joined him onstage. (Having already performed a tribute to his wife, plucking her out of the audience for a couple of kisses, Mr. Jackman identified himself emphatically as an ally.)
“A Million Dreams,” sung in “The Greatest Showman” on a rooftop amid a field of billowing bedsheets, has been beautifully translated for the stage, with choreography by Warren Carlyle (who is also the show’s director) that includes lyrics performed in American Sign Language.
But “This Is Me,” the movie’s Oscar-nominated anthem, proved the evening’s one true blazing number. With Mr. Paul at the piano and Mr. Pasek onstage nearby, the magnificent Keala Settle — who played Lettie, the bearded lady, in the film — entered in a sparkling jumpsuit and set the arena on fire through the force of her voice and presence.
Mr. Jackman never reached that level. With jumbo screens flanking the stage, he seemed to play less to the audience than to the cameras that tracked him. It was like watching the taping of a movie musical or variety show.
In close-ups on those screens, Mr. Jackman sometimes looked like a man feeling the pure joy of performing music he loves. But he also had red-rimmed eyes; if that was a sign of fatigue, who could blame him? Physically, the show is hugely demanding, which could be why he at times came across as rotely professional. Maybe he was rationing his energy.
The disconnect made me wish I were nearer — and in that sense, this show is a superb advertisement for the intimacy of Broadway. You’d never feel so far away in one of its theaters. Luckily, Mr. Jackman is scheduled to return there next year in “The Music Man.” It’s a safe bet that we’ll feel his considerable magnetism then, turned up to its full power.
Hugh Jackman: The Man. The Music. The Show.
Performed on Friday and Saturday at Madison Square Garden, Manhattan.