Lights dim down as silence drowns the audience anticipating Bryan Cranston’s appearance. At the center of the stage, seated on the chair, is the actor: grey-haired, large nose, ears and chin. The silence is broken by the sound of a thick southern accent. President Lyndon Johnson smoothly comes to life. All the Way began previewing performances on February 10th and officially opened on March 6th in the Neil Simon Theatre. The play portrays President Lyndon Johnson, wheeling and bargaining to pass the Civil Right Act of 1964, a powerful role that fits Cranston’s love for outsized characters of substance.
The play covers the first twelve months of Johnson’s presidency. It starts with John F. Kennedy’s assassination and ends with his own victory in the next election. All the Way has all the ingredients for success: a star, drama, murder and humor. With players ranging from Martin Luther King Jr. to F.B.I tyrant Edgar Hoover, the play shines a light on a variety of significant characters, all with intricate personalities. The audience witnesses the weaving and un-weaving of complex relationships of power. Unveiling that the hero -bully would do whatever it takes, and play his ponds as he saw fit, in order to win. “It’s not personal. It’s just politics.”
Many fans and critiques wonder how Cranston was able to shift from playing a chemistry teacher turned drug lord to performing as the 36th President of the United States Of America. Throughout the play, striking parallels are drawn between the two characters. Both share a love for power, are strong willed and determined to succeed. To prepare for his role, Cranston studied LBJ in great depths. He visited the LBJ Presidential library in Texas, listened to Johnson’s voice on White House tapes to get his accent right. Thanks to his in-depth studies, Cranston successfully captured the President’s neediness, insecurities, lack of confidence and strange humor.
The actor’s passion for his role as LBJ grows from his own political convictions. Born in 1956, Cranston has vivid memories of the racial conflict dating as far back as the Watts riots in 1965, which took place only an hour from his home. You can sense in his voice and body language, the passion of a man who was directly exposed to injustice and who wants to fight for change.
Bill Rauch, who directs the play, put together a cast of quality to fill all the forty roles. Because of the abundance of characters, few had the time to be explored in much depth. Betsy Aidem, portraying Lady Bird Johnson, crisply captured the first lady’s role as her husband’s motivator despite the small amount of time dedicated to her. On the other hand, Brandon J. Dirden, delivered a meek portrayal of Martin Luther King, Jr although he was on stage for a greater part of the play. His performance lacked personality. The actor depicted King as a tepid leader and a passive listener. Stokely Carmichael, the activist, played by William Jackson Harper, had more charisma and stage presence than King, who was underwhelming in contrast to King’s real-life persona.
The historical drama by Robert Schenkkan was a bold choice for a Broadway show but Bryan Cranston’s performance brings a compelling energy to the street of New York. Whether you know a lot about Lyndon Johnson or not, we recommend you go see it. You can buy tickets on www.allthewaybroadway.com
By Julia Schur '15