Man of La Mancha Playwright Dale Wasserman's Semi-Posthumous Burning in the Night an Impressionist, Song-Studded Memory at Peoria's Theater Works

Keep New Times Free
I Support
  • Local
  • Community
  • Journalism
  • logo

Support the independent voice of Phoenix and help keep the future of New Times free.

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.

See also: - Dale Wasserman Will Be Remembered for One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, Not Premiere - La Mancha for All Seasons - Not Quite Cloud Nine

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.

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.

Follow Jackalope Ranch on FacebookTwitter, and Pinterest.

Keep Phoenix New Times Free... Since we started Phoenix New Times, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Phoenix, and we would like to keep it that way. Offering our readers free access to incisive coverage of local news, food and culture. Producing stories on everything from political scandals to the hottest new bands, with gutsy reporting, stylish writing, and staffers who've won everything from the Society of Professional Journalists' Sigma Delta Chi feature-writing award to the Casey Medal for Meritorious Journalism. But with local journalism's existence under siege and advertising revenue setbacks having a larger impact, it is important now more than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" membership program, allowing us to keep covering Phoenix with no paywalls.

We use cookies to collect and analyze information on site performance and usage, and to enhance and customize content and advertisements. By clicking 'X' or continuing to use the site, you agree to allow cookies to be placed. To find out more, visit our cookies policy and our privacy policy.


Join the New Times community and help support independent local journalism in Phoenix.


Join the New Times community and help support independent local journalism in Phoenix.