Start spreading the news - there’s a new king on the Great White Way! You won’t be distracted by either “Breaking Bad’s” Walter White, or “Malcolm In the Middle’s” Dad, Hal, if you catch Emmy and Golden Globe award winner Bryan Cranston in his Broadway debut. The play is called “All the Way,” and once the confident Cranston slips on President Lyndon Baines Johnson’s trademark glasses, pumps out his chest, and acquires a thick Texas twang, he’s all LBJ.
He does not imitate, but seems to inhabit, the gargantuan persona of the thirty-sixth President of the United States. Cranston even looks a foot taller on stage, towering over his fellow politicians. He’s in nearly every scene, leading a large and talented cast in this new, all-American play. “All the Way,” is written by Pulitzer Prize-winner Robert Shenkkan. The show drags you into all the sixties race drama without ever lecturing. But the civil rights issues are as valid today as they were back then, when Johnson struggled to get the 1964 Civil Rights Act pushed through both houses of Congress. When one African-American activist agonizes over the tragedy of black men being murdered by white men, many of whom seem to escape accountability, a chill runs down your spine. And when Arizona, out of all 50 states, is singled out as being a particular thorn in the side of civil rights activists, it’s hard not to think of Arizona today.
Schenkkan has written President Johnson just as historians Robert Caro and Doris Kearns Goodwin would have us remember him: larger than life, often meaner then a junkyard dog, and driven as a matador trapped in a bullring. He’s a character for the ages and Cranston has every nuance down. Never once did I feel like like I was stuck in a stodgy political science class.
Standouts in the supporting cast include Robert Petkoff as Hubert Humphrey, a senator with the best of intentions; Brandon J. Dirksen, spectacular as a somewhat conflicted Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.,and Michael McKean (yes, from “Laverne & Shirley”), as a particularly wicked J. Edgar Hoover.
Fans of “Breaking Bad” in particular, and the actor in general, will thrill to see Cranston as a less conflicted hero. But the characters do have something in common. Like Walter White, Lyndon Johnson gets the job done.
Listen for Bryan Cranston’s name come Tony time. “All the Way” is at the Neil Simon Theatre through June 29th.
-- Chris Fahey