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Review: A.R.T. scores a presidential win with 'All the Way'

All the Way,' starring 'Breaking Bad's' Bryan Cranston as LBJ, is a fascinating look at the career of our 36th president.

Bryan Cranston portrays Lyndon B. Johnson in "All the Way." Bryan Cranston portrays Lyndon B. Johnson in "All the Way."

If “All The Way” is faithful to history, then Lyndon Johnson was one of the most fascinating characters in contemporary American history.

Of course, it doesn’t hurt that Bryan Cranston (of “Breaking Bad” fame) is portraying the 36th president of the United States in the American Repertory Theater’s riveting production. Cranston not only brings enough star wattage to sell out the run, he also demonstrates a keen ability to embody a historic character through the nuances of his essence, rather than shooting for exact replication.

The story begins on Nov. 22, 1963, the day then Vice President Johnson “became president by accident,” and continues through his resounding victory over Barry Goldwater the following year. Its primary focus is his struggle to pass the Civil Rights Act of 1964, giving Cranston ample opportunity to “apply that old Texas twist” to his role.

Cranston delivers a tour de force performance, capturing LBJ’s larger than life essence and volatile personality while showcasing how his backdoor politicking enabled him to get something done in a gridlocked Washington.

The stellar ensemble includes Michael McKean (“This Is Spinal Tap”) as J. Edgar Hoover, the man who provided the secrets Johnson used to blackmail members of Congress. Though a bit suave for the ruffian FBI director, McKean is magnificent in an operatic moment when Hoover composes a blackmail letter to Martin Luther King Jr. while LBJ voraciously takes his own tally.

Though the crescendo leads to an ending that might seem anticlimactic (he won the election after all), getting there is so spellbinding it might feel like history is being rewritten — and certainly revamped.

 
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