BWW Reviews: LBJ Goes ALL THE WAY in Schenkkan's Exciting Political Drama
Like a symphony conductor's podium, President Lyndon B. Johnson's Oval Office desk is placed before three curved tiers of senators, governors, activists and anarchists, each trying to make his own music be heard above the cacophony of American politics.
A little bit U.S. Senate and a little bit New York Philharmonic, designer Christopher Acebo's spacious set, given location specificity through a parade of scenes by Shawn Sagady's projections, help the free-flowing pageantry of Robert Schenkkan's exciting and energetic drama, All The Way, gallop full speed in director Bill Rauch's pulse-racing production.
At the center of a top-notch ensemble is Bryan Cranston, portraying our 36th president with that memorable thick Texas drawl, a commanding presence, a quick mind and a ferocious temper. He is indeed a skilled conductor; ruthlessly political, bullying, foul-mouthed and often insensitive to those who show him the most loyalty, all for the cause of promoting the sweet harmony of civil rights with a minimal amount of rioting.
Beginning on the fateful morning he suddenly became president and concluding on the night, less than a year later, when he won the title outright in the 1964 election, All The Way focuses on how the president who managed to get the Civil Rights Act passed despite the objections of his southern colleagues still found himself having to prove his commitment to racial equality.
In Johnson's mind, the worst thing that could happen to the Civil Rights movement would be a victory for his Republican opponent, Barry Goldwater, so if his reaction to the murder of three youths who were working for voting rights isn't considered strong enough or if his support of a group of black delegates demanding recognition at the Democratic Convention isn't firm enough, it's all for the sake of not alienating the white majority. (One of the more disturbing visuals is a projection of a Goldwater campaign billboard with the slogan, "In your heart you know he's right.")
The supporting company is packed with terrific performances, most notably Robert Petkoff as an idealistic Hubert Humphrey who must learn the art of compromise in order to prove himself to be vice-president material, Rob Campbell as Governor George Wallace, becoming the young, charismatic voice of Democratic Party segregationists and William Jackson Harper as determined and uncompromising activist Stokely Carmichael.
Michael McKean's J. Edgar Hoover gives the appearance of a man who is always uncomfortable in his own skin, Brandon J. Dirden replicates the smooth verbal cadences of Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. and John McMartin drips political charm as Senator Richard Russell.
Betsy Aidem is especially empathetic as the much-ignored Lady Bird Johnson, who sees putting up with her husband's emotional absence as a duty to her country.
Emotional absence is also an issue when Johnson, avoiding controversy that might cost him votes, fails to publically congratulate Dr. King on his Nobel Peace Prize and displays no support for his loyal aide Walter Jenkins (a fine Christopher Liam Moore) after he's arrested for a victimless crime.
As the president says, "It's not personal... It's just politics,"