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A CurtainUp DC Review
All the Way
What helps, of course, is the bellowing voice of Jack Willis as President Lyndon Baines Johnson, a larger-than-life character physically and politically. Curtainup's review of the Broadway production suggests that Tony winner Bryan Cranston "owns" the role of LBJ ( Elyse's review ). However, Jack Willis, the original LBJ when the show premiered pre-Broadway at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, incarnates the larger than life pol perfectly. Not as tall as the former president, Willis has mastered the crudeness, vulgarity and physicality of the role. He embodies the Commander in Chief who dominates all who come before him. Plus his bombastic voice carries a heavy punch.
When President Kennedy was shot and killed in November, 1963, Vice President Johnson succeeded him. It was a job, playwright Schenkkan reminds us, he did not want. But given the circumstances and given the responsibilities thrust upon him, LBJ took to the leadership the way he treated his dog whom he lifted by its ears. His command of politics is legendary, especially in the way he engineered the passage of the Civil Rights Bill. Do not think of this play whose time frame is November, 1963 to November 1964 as a civics or history lesson but rather a drama, good guys versus bad guys, who wins and how.
The slogan "All the Way" comes from the Presidential election of 1964 but the play's title could just as easily connote what the President expected of his cabinet and his aides — total devotion not just to him but to the cause, particularly the Civil Rights Act.
Willis is touching as LBJ describes the poverty of his youth and of those who surrounded him in the South, the genesis of his commitment to civil rights. What he had to do to get the Act passed makes riveting theater. He is fortunate in that Director Kyle Donnelly has orchestrated the drama well. And she is blessed with a mostly fine cast.
Both Richard Clodfelter as Hubert Humphrey— a thoroughly decent man, courtly politician and perfect foil to LBJ — and Lawrence Redmond as Richard Russell — a bigoted Senator whose attempts along with those of his fellow white, Southern old fogeys to crush the Civil Rights Act— give excellent performances.
Discussions among African-American leaders to LBJ's left such as Stokely Carmichael (Jaben Early in a fine vignette), and to the right, Roy Wilkins (the sonorous David Emerson Toney) expose a full range of the black leadership's takes on how to proceed: the young firebrands willing to take risks versus the old go-along to get-along guys.
Costume designer Nan Cibula-Jenkins has fun with mid-1960's dresses, suits, pearls, perfectly placed brooches and white gloves worn by the stand-by-your-man spouses Lady Bird Johnson (Susan Rome) and Lurleen Wallace(Adrienne Nelson.) Many of the male actors play multiple parts, their differences marked by their hair which must have kept wig designer Anne Nesmith busy.
LBJ the politician did what he had to do to get results. LBJ the man was crude and vulgar, a bully and a liar, but he was a brilliant politician and Jack Willis's portrayal gives the "accidental" President his due — an exceptionally gripping performance.