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First Nighter: LBJ Bio All the Way With Bryan Cranston Goes All the Way

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Missing for deliberate reasons or reasons of chronology from All the Way, Robert Schenkkan's sure-fire hit at the Neil Simon, are Robert Kennedy, Sam Rayburn, Lynda Baines Johnson, Luci Bird Johnson, Jacquelyn Bouvier Kennedy, chroniclers Robert Caro and Doris Kearns Goodwin.

Otherwise, nothing that happened involving Lyndon Baines Johnson, here several times calling himself "the accidental President," seems to have been overlooked in the fast-paced coverage of events from the post-Dallas assassination of John Fitzgerald Kennedy on November 22, 1963 through election night, November 3, 1964.

The mission Schenkkan has set himself in this action-packed, verbiage-loaded two-acter (The Great Society, a sequel is due on the West Coast this coming July) is to demonstrate with no shilly-shallying exactly how sly-dickens Johnson (Bryan Cranston, having completed Breaking Bad's 60 hours) eased his way around Democrats and Republicans alike whenever he set his mind to it--which was always.

The first All the Way half is a head-knocking-after-head-knocking account of Johnson's fighting for the 1964 Civil Rights Bill Act by cozying up to anyone in his way. There were plenty of the living and thinking obstacles, including bill-naysayer Southern Democrat Sam Russell (John McMartin) and pro-bill-but-conflicting-needs Martin Luther King (Brandon J. Dirden), Roy Wilkins (Peter Jay Fernandez) and Stokeley Carmichael (William Jackson Harper).

What the first act really is a series of confrontations Johnson has--interrupted only a few times by the King group arguing among themselves--during which he knows what buttons to push on his demurring colleagues and pushing them as if it's with the index finger he regularly uses to poke men in the chest.

In the second act, it's the election he's after. Having to deal with complications that are affecting his popularity and Barry Goldwater's concomitant gains in the polls, he has to work his politico magic in the same manhandling way. Compounding his worries are run-ins with J. Edgar Hoover (Michael McKean), who has various threats up his sleeve, many as a result of surreptitious taping of the gal-on-the-side type he also has on Reverend King.

The most mesmerizing of these manipulation scenes are his dangling the vice president slot before the very liberal Hubert Humphrey (Robert Petkoff), his heavy-tread waltzes with Senators Everett Dirksen (Richard Poe) and James Eastland (James Eckhouse) and his cunning Hoover one-on-ones.

At these charged exchanges, Cranston triumphs. Not really resembling LBJ--although something may have been done to enlarge his ears, or maybe it's an illusion--he raises himself to the accidental, and then deliberate, Texan's height. He also takes on the standing and walking and sitting postures, the guffaw when joking with friends, enemies and frenemies alike and the obscenity-spouting glee, the joy in progress-achieving pragmatism.

It's a towering performance in a couple senses of the word and directly in line with how Johnson has been depicted by journalists, historians and biographers. (Maybe Caro and Goodwin aren't as absent from the stage as they seem.)

Effective as Schenkkan's opus is, there's something about it that makes it effective in a questionable way. There's no doubt that director Bill Rauch--artistic director of the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, where All the Way was first performed--collected an extremely capable cast of 20. Many, if not most of them, are doubling and tripling. (The putting on and taking off of Paul Huntley's wigs must be some backstage sight to see.)

They deserve acknowledgment individually, especially the venerable McMartin, Dirden, McKean, Poe, Eckhouse, Fernandez, Christopher Liam Moore as the Prez's mainstay aide Walter Jenkins, Roslyn Ruff as Coretta Scott King and Fannie Lou Hamer, Betsy Aidem as ultra-understanding Lady Bird Johnson and Rob Campbell as George Wallace. It has to be said that many of the actors, dressed in Deborah M. Dryden's '60s fashions, don't convincingly look a great deal like the boldface names they impersonate. But Campbell is the startling exception. He plays five parts, but he's a dead ringer for beetle-browed Governor Wallace.

While the actors can be thanked, Rauch's demands on them may occasionally be questioned. Probably to get the fascinating rhythm and decibel level of Johnson's encounters going and just as possibly sensing the need to move a heavy-on-the-word-count script quickly, the scenes are revved up. Frequently (too frequently?), such speed and volume gives an over-the-top feel to the production. It's as if the audience is invited to scan a string of Herblock editorial cartoons. An additional development is that Johnson's any-means-to-an-end approach appears throughout to be ruling him more than his sincere beliefs in the radical changes he's pursuing.

Rauch receives commendable help for his lickety-split tempo from Christopher Acebo, who's designed a courtroom-like utilitarian set that with the addition and subtraction of various furnishings can be the Senate floor or the Johnson's bedroom, can be DC, Atlanta or Mississippi, can be a Congressman's lounge or George Wallace's soapbox arena. Equally impressive are the projections of every sort of environment, climate and television news hour provided constantly by Shawn Sagady and consultant Wendell K. Harrington, who was in on the ground floor of the present projections-everywhere movement.

Just a few parting words about Schenkkan's title. It's taken, of course, from the then ubiquitous "All the way with LBJ" slogan. So why not use the slogan in its entirety for the play? (Is there some legal knot?) Conversely, why choose a title already employed for another biographical item, the 1957 movie about comedian Joe E. Lewis from which the Oscar-winning title song emanates? The Sammy Cahn-James Van Heusen ballad isn't rendered here, but "Happy Days are Here Again" and the memorable alteration of Jerry Herman's "Hello, Dolly" to "Hello, Lyndon" are.

Well, well, well, hello, Lyndon again.