The setup: Dale Wasserman, who lived and worked in Paradise Valley from 1992 until his death in 2008, was one of the old school of stage and screen scribes who ran off as a youth from a boring small town and made his bones in the golden age of TV drama -- a guy who could legitimately call Jack Kerouac a "wanna-be," as the character based on Wasserman, the Hobo, does in the dramatization of his memoir, Burning in the Night: a memory play with music. Wasserman was most famed for Man of La Mancha and the stage version of Ken Kesey's One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest.
Local playwright Richard Warren, a friend of Wasserman's, adapted the monologue-like story of the writer's youthful itinerant rail-riding into a play that was workshopped at Phoenix Theatre's Hormel New Works Festival and is now in full production at Theater Works.
The execution: It could be argued that Wasserman's best works were about delusional assholes, and there's a bit of the grandiose weirdo in all his protagonists. Often called grouchy and curmudgeonly by people who met him, he may have just been, from what I can gather from the tone of his reminiscences in Burning in the Night, a guy who was forthcoming with his thoughts and convinced of their exclusive validity, based on hard lessons learned outside of formal education. His life experiences probably fostered in him a demeanor that worked.
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The ramblings of such a person are sometimes the stuff of great theater, but not necessarily, and I found the script itself thin and tedious. But a miracle has happened -- not only is Mike Lawler, one of the best actors and cuddliest people in all of metro Phoenix, playing the Hobo, but stars aligned to bring three teenage musicians from Chandler's Jam Pak Blues 'n' Grass Neighborhood Band across town to play the old-timey standards that Warren was clever enough to sprinkle through the production.
These kids look like urchins (in the appropriate way), sound like angels, and along with Thom Gilseth's shabby and functional railyard set, absolutely make the show. Rather than a play with music, Burning in the Night is, in this incarnation, a song cycle with some nostalgic, scattered narration kinda-sorta tying it together.
The verdict: Performances in the smaller house at Peoria Center for the Performing Arts are selling out; I recommend scooting out there for a show that will briefly transport you (even if you aren't sure where) and probably make you feel good about American history, folklore, and music. Burning in the Night: a memory play with music continues through Sunday, February 24, at Peoria Center for the Performing Arts, 8355 West Peoria Avenue. Order tickets here ($13 to $31) or call 623-815-7930.