Since the days when sketch comedy became a part of our popular culture, it has been challenging to view portrayals of celebrities and/or politicians with an objective eye. It is especially difficult if those personalities are larger than life figures. Difficult, but not impossible. Currently, Bryan Cranston is proving this theory wrong in a layered and complex performance as President Lyndon Baines Johnson in Broadway’s All the Way.
This rich political drama begins in 1963, shortly after the assassination of President Kennedy. With Johnson now at the helm, he is forced to pass the Civil Rights Act, which has both the nation–and congress–at complete odds. It is a pivotal moment for Johnson. While he honestly feels as though it is the right thing to do, he must fight against archaic opposition from those more concerned about their own political careers and approval from constituents.
Over the course of 3 hours, deals are dealt, hands are shaken, secrets are whispered, and there’s “a whole lotta cajoling goin’ on”. Johnson’s southern charm is prominent, but so are his razor sharp tactics. No one is spared from his drive to succeed, not even his own wife, Lady Bird Johnson (Betsy Aidem), whom he enlists to speak in front of audiences in the days leading up to the 1964 election.
Though the cast is 20, most of them play multiple roles of actual figures. Robert Petkoff is perfectly obsequious as Senator Hubert Humphreys, who serves both as Johnson’s right hand man and punching bag. Rosyln Ruff renders a brief performance during a memorable scene. Her character, Fannie Lou Hamer, is appearing at a press conference on national television to describe the cruelty she endured as a young black girl. William Jackson Harper ignites the audience with a fireball performance as Stokley Carmichael, a civil rights organizer demanding equality. It is effectively staged, as Carmichael delivers his plea from the orchestra. There is potency in the language and an immediacy which cannot be ignored.
Cranston is clearly the star here, but the rest of the cast can fully hold their own. With simple use of projections, scene changes are made within the confines of the US Congressional House. This is truly theater at its’ finest. Robert Schenkkan’s script is crisp, riveting and thoughtful. He has successfully given us the first must see hit of the year.
All the Way is now playing on Broadway at the Neil Simon Theater, 250 West 52nd Street between 8th and Broadway. For tickets, call 1- 800-745-3000, visit ticketmaster.com, or go to the box office.
Correction: It was the character David Dennis who delivered the speech from the balcony. He was played by Eric Lenox Abrams, not William Jackson Harper.