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“All the Way” by Robert Schenkkan with Bryan Cranston at the Neil Simon Theatre

Posted on: April 20th, 2014 by Art Leonard No Comments

One expects light comedy at the Neil Simon Theatre, but sometimes one gets heavy drama. At least that is the case with “All the Way,” Robert Schenkkan’s dramatization of the first year of Lyndon Johnson’s presidency, November 1963 through November 1964. Johnson was propelled into the presidency unprepared with the sudden assassination of John F. Kennedy. Bringing his masterful legislative talents to bear, he pushed through several key pieces of the Kennedy legislative agenda that had been languishing in congressional committees, and achieved a landslide election in his own right against Barry Goldwater, less than 12 months after taking office.

Bryan Cranston did an exceptional job of channeling LBJ at the matinee performance I attended on April 19. Although he doesn’t really resemble the late president, he managed to scrunch up his facial features in a way that did evoke Johnson. Similarly, his voice fell short of an outright impression of LBJ, but he managed to inject just enough of the Texas drawl to make it convincing. Leaving that aside, however, this is a fully integrated performance that is consistent throughout and certainly seems to capture the character so vividly described in Robert Caro’s exceptional series of biographical tomes, the most recent of which actually covered the first half of this period.

Robert Schenkkan has provided a sympathetic protrait of a complicated man, an intensely political man who was obsessed with achievement and, haunted by the abbreviated lifespan of his father, eager to accomplish as much as possible from the fear that his time in office would be short. As it was, his time in office was cut short by his miscalculation of the public’s willingness to support his military commitment in South Vietnam rather than his health, as events caused him to remove his name from consideration for the 1968 nomination.

Cranston is surrounded by an excellent supporting case, from among whom I would particularly note Brandon J. Dirden as Martin Luther King and Robert Petkoff as Hubert Humphrey. Betty Aidem was also superb in an unduly short role as Lady Bird Johnson – I could have stood for a lot more from her – and the production itself was economically but effectively staged with a unit set that could be quickly converted through lighting, props and projections to provide numerous different appropriate settings from the Oval Office to the halls of Congress to hotel rooms and political convention podiums. Director Bill Rauch had the cast moving through a complex choreography of entrances, exists, and dramatic interactions. The entire thing is so brilliantly enacted and staged that it seems a lot shorter than it actually was. What could have been a dry history lesson emerges as a vivid portrait of a passionately engaged man who stumbled at times — sometimes with tragic consequences for himself and the nation — but who also left a rich domestic policy legacy that continues to provide the framework for some of our most important laws, especially the Civil Rights Act of 1964 which was his first great legislative achievement as president.

“Big Fish” Takes Time to Get Interesting (caution, plot spoilers)

Posted on: October 30th, 2013 by Art Leonard No Comments

I attended a performance of “Big Fish,” the new musical show with music and lyrics by Andrew Lippa and book by John August, last night at the Neil Simon Theatre.  The big draw, of course, is to see Norbert Leo Butz doing his thing – big production numbers, dancing, etc.  But through the long first act, my impression was that this was a piece of fluff, all about the production numbers, with supporting stars Bobby Steggert and Kate Baldwin being wasted in roles that didn’t really call upon their many talents.

I changed my mind during the second act.  I found more drama and interesting themes emerging, gradually supplanting the production numbers and resulting in a show that, by its conclusion, was quite affecting.

Essentially, this is a story about the relationship of a man with his son, how the son as a youngster judges his father harshly as a confabulator, only to discover, after he grows up and his father lays dying, that in fact the man had substantive, heroic qualities about which he had not cared to speak.  The son comes to appreciate his father just as he loses him, but takes lessons in how to raise his own son, born shortly after the father’s death.  And both Steggert and Baldwin end up having much more to do in the second act.  By the end, although I still felt that Steggert, in particular, was not given enough material to work with here, the overall balance tipped in favor of the show.

Susan Stroman handled direction and choreography, and the individuals responsible for sets, lighting, costumes and sound did a great job, although I think Mr. Steggert could be miked just a bit louder to be heard over the orchestra.  Instead of putting the orchestra in a pit, it is arrayed behind a solid scrim at the back of the stage, so it is actually projecting much louder than a pit orchestra out into the auditorium — and there is the usual unfortunate Broadway amplification as well, so the singers need to be amped up to be heard.  One wonders how Broadway got along back before electric amplification – maybe people were just better listeners in the acoustic theater age.  I think they could play with the balances a bit more as the run progresses.

Would I recommend this show?  Yes, with the reservation that the first act is too long and the fluff goes on too long before it finally gets into some substance, but once it does it is really quite moving and involving.   Butz does some of his best acting when he’s lying in bed, portraying a man slowing fading away from cancer.