SALT LAKE CITY — It’s his first world tour, and Hugh Jackman has so much to say.
Ready, set, go: He’s obsessed with numbers. He did some research on Utah and shared with his large Vivint Arena crowd Thursday night how Salt Lake City is the leading manufacturer of rubber chickens in the United States and that in 1868, the word “great” was dropped from the official city name “because everyone already knew it was great.”
He grew up in Australia playing cricket and rugby. When he was 8, someone forgot to pick him up and take him to his first cricket game. There were only three channels on his family’s TV and he had an intense crush on Olivia Newton-John. A map on his bedroom wall inspired him to imagine all the places in the world he could travel. As early as the fifth grade, he wanted to learn how to dance but his brother made fun of him so he didn’t learn until years later. He dreamed of being in a musical. His father was an accountant. He’s been married to his wife, Deborra-Lee Furness, for 23 years. He’s a person who likes to beat the traffic.
The list goes on and on. During a 2 1/2-hour production, Jackman seemed determined to show and tell his audience — who for 19 years has best known him as “X-Men’s” Wolverine — who he really is. For being an arena production, Jackman’s “The Man. The Music. The Show.” is surprisingly intimate.
But make no mistake: Jackman’s show is also a full-on spectacle. He can change outfits in record time, and the actor-singer seems to have an endless supply of energy and sparkly clothes on hand. He also seems to be on a mission to prove to the world that he is, in fact, the Greatest Showman.
So is he? If the question was, “Is Jackman the Greatest Singer?” the answer would be a resounding no. Throughout his show, Jackman connects stories from his life with songs from Broadway musicals. Many times, the stories are more entertaining than the songs. His voice isn’t at all bad, but with all of his backup singers, help from Las Vegas Academy of the Arts students and powerhouse vocalist Keala Settle — we’ll get to her later — Jackman may very well be the weakest singer on stage.
But honestly, none of that really matters because it’s Hugh Jackman and we’re talking about showmanship here. Jackman clearly knows how to put on a show. To begin with, he doesn’t even have to be on stage to get a crowd going. After movie clips from the actor’s extensive career unfolded on big screens on both sides of the stage, the Vivint Arena audience erupted.
And then he emerged, no longer a character on a screen. Donning a black bow tie, silver jacket and shiny black shoes, Jackman was very, very real. He was charming, grinning ear-to-ear and stood with his arms wide open, as if he was giving everyone in the arena a hug. Surrounded by eight dancers, backup singers and excellent musicians, he launched into “The Greatest Show” — the opening track from “The Greatest Showman” and a foreshadowing of the spectacle to come.
Jackman’s show plays out like a Broadway revue, which at first makes the arena setting seem like an odd pairing. But keep this in mind: Jackman has 23 million followers on Facebook. The extravagant production at Vivint Arena marked a return to Jackman’s theatrical roots: In the mid-1990s, a few years before busting out his retractable claws, Jackman was an avid performer in Melbourne’s theater scene, where he played a number of roles including the villainous Gaston from “Beauty and the Beast.”
“I sincerely hope you’re not only a Wolverine fan,” Jackman told the crowd with a laugh. “It could be a long night.”
But “X-Men” fans, don’t despair: Jackman knows his crowd and knows he couldn’t get away with doing a show without at least a couple of nods to his Wolverine character.
Jackman’s cinematic versatility — from “X-Men” to “Les Miserables” to “The Greatest Showman” — transfers to the stage. His electic production includes everything from big band to tap to jazz to Van Halen to indigenous Australian music. But above all, Jackman recognizes the talent of those who are on tour with him, performers like Settle who help to make this entertaining spectacle so successful night after night.
Settle, a Southern Utah University graduate who played bearded lady Lettie Lutz in “The Greatest Showman," was essentially performing for a home crowd Thursday night. Her performance of "This Is Me" was powerful and had people even in the highest rows of the arena on their feet, cheering and shining their phone lights. It was one of the show's more moving moments, and Jackman seemed completely at ease to let Settle and other special guests have their shining moment.
Settle isn't the only Utah connection to "The Greatest Showman." Jackman thanked his Utah audience for supporting the 2017 musical film, saying that while Salt Lake City typically ranks somewhere in the middle of other U.S. locations at the box office due to population, when it came to "The Greatest Showman," Utah was one of the highest in the country.
Which is what made the absence of former Utah resident Loren Allred — the voice behind the power ballad "Never Enough" — all the more disappointing. Jackman gave the audience many hits from the film, but not having that song with its Utah ties in the production felt like a missed opportunity. But when all was said and done, it really didn't matter because Jackman is a born entertainer and put his heart and soul into the production.
So is Jackman the Greatest Showman? Concert attendees last night, and likely tonight, may very well think so.