It’s a 3-hour history lesson, regarding one of the most tragic and tumultuous times in American Presidential politics. Audiences shouldn’t fear the subject matter though(or the running time), because it never feels like school. In fact, political junkies may just find themselves clamoring for more(and they’ll get it—part two of the project, “The Great Society”, will debut in Oregon in just a few months)from playwright Robert Schenkkan. As if the story of vice-president Lyndon Baines Johnson, and his thrusting into the role of commander-in-chief after President Kennedy’s November 1963 assassination, isn’t compelling enough stuff—you’ve got the Broadway debut of a prolific character actor who is also now a bona fide television mega-star. And Bryan Cranston(“Drive”, “Argo”, the forthcoming “Godzilla” reboot), just months past the finale of his five-season run as Walter White in the critically lauded and awards-rich “Breaking Bad”, is mesmerizing as Johnson in a portrayal that just may add a Tony to his substantial prize collection. And the appreciative weekend audience that I attended “All the Way” with, seemed to hang on his every word, and lap up every punch line and nuance. I’m going to hazard a guess that at least half of this matinée crowd were fans of Cranston’s T.V. show(fyi-I’ve never watched an episode). And for them Bryan could do no wrong. Luckily, the rest of us had the bonus of Mr. Cranston actually being in excellent form.
“All the Way” covers the roughly one year period from the murder of John F. Kennedy in Dallas in November of 1963 through Lyndon Johnson’s November 1964 victory over Republican challenger, Barry Goldwater(if you consider that a spoiler, you really have open a book more often). And we quickly witness the wild rapids ride of the so-called “accidental president”, as he attempts to cajole, back-slap, intimidate, barter and compromise his way into passing the Civil Rights Act of 1964, as well as try to maintain the South as he quickly approaches the 1964 Presidential Election. But the focus isn’t all Johnson, as we’re treated to a focus on the behind-the-scenes machinations involving Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. and his oft-battling contemporaries Roy Wilkins and Stokely Carmichael. Hubert H. Humphrey is also introduced, as Johnson dangles the fruit of a vice-presidential seat in front of the Minnesota Senator throughout. And the sleazy J. Edgar Hoover slithers about obliquely as LBJ abandons “morally compromised” aide Walter Jenkins, glad-hands influential Senator Richard Russell of Georgia(“it’s not personal, Dick—it’s just politics” becomes an appropiate mantra of the drama), and amusingly spars with Senator Strom Thurmond of South Carolina(Thurmond infamously jumped from the Democratic to Republican party in 1964, partly because of his opposition to the 1964 Civil Rights Act). Unfortunately, women don’t appear to be much of a factor in 1964 Washington, as Lady Bird Johnson and Coretta Scott King remain mostly on the play’s periphery, in the standard function of dutiful, supportive and forgiving wives.
The production is smartly directed by Bill Rauch(artistic director of the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, where “All the Way” premiered), and the sharp scenic design was provided by Christopher Acebo. Jane Cox is in charge of the intricate lighting detail, and a team of projection and sound designers grace the production with amusing black-and-white occasional real-time footage of the performers on a backdrop upstage. It’s supposed to represent how things would’ve appeared on a 1964 television unit(I don’t know if this effect was necessary, but it was kind of fun). Other bells and whistles include actors intermittently popping up in the audience(distracting and superfluous)and streamers and confetti shooting into the auditorium late in Act Two(why bother, you just have to clean it up eight times a week!). But the majority of the acting is super in this overstuffed work(some trimming wouldn’t hurt), and Cranston carries the bulk of it like a Texas-flavored Atlas. There’s also strong support work from Danny Johnson(the understudy stepping in for regular cast member, Brandon J. Dirden)as Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. and veteran John McMartin as senator Richard Russell. And yes, that is an oily Michael McKean(television’s Lenny from “Laverne & Shirley” and David St. Hubbins in the iconic mockumentary “This is Spinal Tap”, among many others), but sadly he’s not given enough stage time. Plus, he’s the brunt of some too-easy “knowing” stingers.
There are nearly 3-score characters in the show, and some performers acquire double-duty. Betsy Aidem adroitly handles First Lady Johnson and publisher Katherine Graham, and Roslyn Ruff is impressive juggling Coretta Scott King and activist Fannie Lou Hamer(that’s when the ladies are actually given something to do). Christopher Liam Moore is a slippery Walter Jenkins and Robert Petkoff is strong as an anticipatory Hubert Humphrey. But this is Cranston’s platform all the way(sorry), and it’s a dynamic and galvanizing portrayal. President Johnson is a fascinating giant of history, and Cranston humanizes him even when he embraces the celebrated LBJ mythology. Even when it occasionally falters, it’s Mr. Cranston who levels “All the Way” back into focus. So, this is one star performance of the spring season, that absolutely provides maximum bang for your buck. This show rates a 7