A CurtainUp Review
All the Way
By Elyse Sommer
With All the Way Schenkkan has smartly opted to leave the cradle to grave portrait of Johnson to book biographers like Caro and Doris Kearns Goodwin and to focus on one tumultuous and ripe for high drama year, 1963 — the year John F. Kennedy was assassinated, making Johnson our 36th President.
But, hurrah, hurrah! Though limited in scope, All the Way doesn't cater to audiences whose idea of a perfect theatrical outing is the 90-minute play that allows plenty of time for post show dining. Instead this slice from the whole loaf of Johnson's life takes its time to unfold. To be exact, three hours. But, the three hours whiz by. Act one zeroes in on Johnson's finagling the passage of the civil Rights Act he believed in and also championed to support his own political ambition. The second act gives free rein to that win-at-any price political fervor.
In a season dominated by that most successful borrower from history, William Shakespeare, it's a real treat to have a freshly minted, full-bodied history play on Broadway. The big buzz about the play's landing at the Neil Simon Theatre during the pre-Tony rush is that it stars Breaking Bad's Bryan Cranston. Luckily, this is not just another case of high profile casting to sell tickets. Without pushing for more of a look-alike persona, Cranston IS Johnson. he's nailed the crude manner of speech, the back slapping political maneuvering and ruthless treatment of even his own wife. And he's riveting!
Cranston is so much All the Way's centerpiece that it could almost come off as a solo drama, were it not for the pleasure of seeing a generously sized ensemble: Nineteen splendid actors play fifty-two of the characters swirling around Johnson during the period starting with his being sworn in and the culmination "accidental presidency" with a landslide victory a year later.
The satisfyingly large cast includes some especially vivid performances by the key players.
Betsy Aiden is wonderfully poignant as the ever loyal Lady Bird Johnson. She also handles brief appearances as Washington Post's Katherine Graham and Representative Katharine St. George.
Brandon J. Dirden as Martin Luther King Jr. makes his meetings with the Civil Rights Movement's leaders as intriguing as his confrontations with Johnson.
John McMartin embodies Johnson's conservative Georgia friend Senator Richard Russell; ditto for Robert Petkoff's Senator Hubert Humphrey. The one actor who most closely resembles his real life role model, is Rob Campbell as Alabama Governor George C. Wallace
Michael McKean's sly J. Edgar Hoover has us shudder at what the FBI chief would do with today's technology. Obviously Hoover's own secret life is well known enough to have much of the audience burst into appreciative laughter during a conversation about Walter Jenkins (Christopher Liam Moore), the top aide Johnson disowns when he's arrested for a sexual misdemeanor.
Director Bill Rauch ably steers the large, multi-tasking cast in and out of view. A superb design team further helps to make everything flow with cinematic smoothness.
Christopher Acebo's single set surrounds a circular central area with wood paneled boxes for the other actors. With Johnson spending most of his stage time in that central circle it's an apt metaphor for a fight ring in which Johnson wages his battle to succeed with his civil rights and personal agendas.
Deborah M. Dryden and Paul Huntley's costume and wig designs abet the various character transitions. With Wendell K. Harrington, who made projection design an indispensable part of stage design, serving as consultant, Shawn Sagady's upstage projections beautifully expand and enrich the set and the play's events. The projections of the three young men murdered in Mississippi (Michael Chaney a local black man and two white New Yorkers, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner), are followed by a particularly powerful scene in which we see Chaney being buried as Johnson talks about the effect of the murder on his election.
Sadly, politics has not become less of a nasty take no prisoners game during the fifty years that have passed since Johnson manipulated, charmed and bullied his supporters and opponents into passing the Civil Rights Act and getting him elected by a landslide. But on stage Beltway skulduggery makes for richly entertaining theater.
Though Schenkkan has ended All the Way with Johnson's triumphant election, a follow up, aptly named The Great Society, is already scheduled for a July premiere at Mr. Rauch's Oregon Shakespeare Festival. Here's hoping Bryan Cranston will be available to perhaps bring it to New York.