Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Bryan Cranston, LBJ and Louann.

I just posted on "All That Chat" this personal review of Bryan Cranston in "All the Way," a new Broadway play about LBJ and the inside process of passing civil rights legislation. I put it here because it refers to Louan Gideon, who I had just written about this past week.


A stunning, masterful performance in an intricate large cast play about the machinations of getting civil rights legislation passed, while simultaneously trying to get nominated and then elected to his first actual term in office after JFK's death. Cranston disappears into the bombastic, profane, warrior persona of LBJ completely and naturally.

It's also a concise and illuminating history lesson by the playwright, Robert Shenkkan. Balancing many simultaneous stories, the writing was crystal clear and easy to follow as it bounced back and forth between Washington and Missisippi.

MLK (Brandon J. Dirdan, calmly convincing) fights to hang on, squeezed between radical young Blacks and the establishment NAACP, getting backstabbed by Johnson and eventually demanding blacks be seated at the Democratic Convention to represent Mississippi. Also, lurking around the edges is J. Edgar Hoover, in a very realistic, non-winking and yet comical without being camp performance by Michael McKean, taping everyone and trying to forward his own power agenda.

People warned me that play was long, but it seemed to fly by, and I felt as energized at the ending as I did when I walked in. It also reminded me of 1776 in that we knew the historical outcome, but were kept hanging in suspense wondering how the election was going to turn out, as he kept losing points the South.(Spoiler: LBJ wins.)

The whole company is richly human and believable, down to the last small part, and Bill Rauch's direction was imaginative and smart in its use of the design elements, sometimes allowing three scenes in three locations to happen at once, without losing any momentum or focus in the narrative.

And also an effective use of onstage actors sitting in what could be a jury or a choir loft or a committee meeting room, with LBJ's big roller chair front and center.

The play also makes a larger point, quoted by LBJ about politics: That politics is not "war by another means. It's just war."

Having personally participated in a non-violent resistance march against the hatemongering of Jerry Falwell, I was especially drawn to the arguments in the MLK camp, as their anger pushed them to rebel against the use of "love and non-violence" and to get into the streets with fists.

LBJ didn't just play. He played to win. Cranston stomps and storms and cuddles and coos and threatens and rails and laughs -- so much bull-bodied laughing in this play from the audience and from the actor.

And if a little bit of Walter White creeped in around the edges in moments, it was only deepened rather than detracted from the character because people addicted to power play by a set rules that the rest of us avoid, and the central one is ruthlessness.

A bit of a personal note: When I looked in the program I was startled, in reading Cranston's bio that he has dedicated his performance to a friend of mine, Louan Gideon, who suddenly and unexpectedly died of cancer, though she had been doing well for a very long time. I had just written a blog entry about her this past week.(Back in the late 70s, I was Louan's musical director for a Vegas style act she was doing with her then boyfriend. It wasn't a great act but it was a three year gig and it got us out of Texas -- and me to New York.)

Louann, you are missed and will always be missed.

Steve Schalchlin

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