Theater Review: ‘All the Way’

Bryan Cranston conquers the complex LBJ
March 12, 2014 Updated: April 11, 2014

NEW YORK—Maybe you loved LBJ. Maybe you hated LBJ. But after seeing Bryan Cranston nail this complex powerhouse of a man, you will definitely respect Lyndon Baines Johnson.

Golden Globe winner Bryan Cranston breathes vitriol in All the Way as he manipulates top ranking senators (like the powerful Richard Russell played by John McMartin) and governors into agreeing with whatever he wants them to do.

Is Bryan Cranston channeling LBJ? He exudes joy with a devilish laugh after he has just bested a friend, such as Russell or J. Edgar Hoover (played by Michael McKean), or an enemy or perceived adversary, such as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. (played by Brandon J. Dirden), in the game of politics. After all, as LBJ says, “It’s not personal; it’s just politics!”

Obvious hypocrisy is at work as LBJ assumes the presidency after Kennedy’s assassination. The beginning of the battle of passing the Civil Rights bill of 1964 may be difficult to take, but the brilliance of the man unfolds as he orchestrates the seemingly impossible feat of successfully passing this legislation.

Cranston brings the audience along for every eye-opening move as if they are experiencing it firsthand.

Cranston embodies so well the many parts of the LBJ public persona. LBJ appears docile and seemingly giving when he needs to be and yet just as easily forceful and vicious as the master chess player in the game of politics that he was.

The smart but necessarily subservient Hubert Humphrey, skillfully played by Robert Petkoff, was a somewhat willing partner in the game. He finally won the gold ring and became vice president in the end, after being on the receiving end of LBJ’s emotional roller-coaster ride.

Lady Bird Johnson, or “Bird” as we know her in the play, was well portrayed by Betsy Aidem. She brings reality to Loretta Lynn’s standard “Stand by Your Man.”

“Bird” was there through thick and thin. One might question how she took the abuse he dished out depending on the pressure he happened to be feeling at the time, but power may after all be the ultimate aphrodisiac.

As she says, “There were other women, but he always came home to me.”

The cast of 20, appearing on stage during the show as a generally silent mise-en-scène, while interesting, may be a bit of overkill for a somewhat lengthy, nonmusical show. This will certainly add to the financial challenge of a long run.

However, the awesome performance of Bryan Cranston as LBJ should not be missed. He has definitely mastered this role, and the audience is totally with him as LBJ succeeds in his struggle to be elected to the presidency at the culmination of the play.

It is an exciting evening of theater!

At a symposium shortly before the opening, historian Doris Kearns Goodwin stated after seeing the show in New York, “Bryan is perfect, the writing is perfect, and the production is perfect.” Well, she said a mouthful.

Creative team for the show include Pulitzer Prize winning author Robert Schenkkan, who won the 2013 Edward M. Kennedy prize for drama for this work; direction by Bill Rauch; scenic design by Christopher Acebo; costume design by Deborah M. Dryden; lighting design by Jane Cox; composing/sound design by Paul James Prendergast; projection design by Shawn Sagady; projection consultant Wendall K. Harrington; hair and wig design by Paul Huntley; and sound consultant Peter Fitzgerald.

All the Way
Neil Simon Theatre
250 West 52nd Street
Tickets: 877-250-2929 or visit ticketmaster.com
Running Time: 3 hours
Closes: June 29

Nanci Callahan is the managing director and founder of the West Side Cultural Center.

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