A CRITIC REMINISCES
I never know what to say about Bob Sorenson. Mainly, because whatever I say, it won’t be enough to explain why this actor, in the minds of so many, IS Phoenix theater
He may not be the greatest actor to perform in Phoenix – after all, John Barrymore tread the boards of a local stage back in the day – but he’s damned good. No, better than that.
I was just beginning my journalism career in the Valley when he emerged from Arizona State University to begin his acting career. I feel as if I have grown up with him. The thing is, he was as memorable the first time I saw him as he is today. Some folks are born to be actors. That’s our Bob.
He was noticeable from the first. Maybe that’s why it’s not surprising that in the late ’80s and ’90s, he seemed to be in every other play. Along with Kathy Fitzgerald, another luminary of the day, his name on the marquee assured producers of a healthy return on their investment.
Bob defines versatility. I remember turning to my wife, after seeing him in Brendan Behan’s The Hostage at the fledgling Actors Theatre of Arizona, and saying, “This guy is going to be something!” That was a highly dramatic part and he nailed it. He’s been equally dramatic in other roles (Actors Theatre’s Orphans for one). It’s just hard to get casting directors to remember that.
Mention Bob Sorenson and most people will say “Oh, the funny guy!” However good he is at dramatic parts, Bob is unquestionably a genius at comedy. It would take until next month to list my favorite evenings spent laughing at this guy, but The Mystery of Irma Vep was one them.
Joining forces with R. Hamilton Wright, he played a number of roles, male and female, with split-second costume changes that boggled the mind. I embarrassed myself by laughing so hard, I got the hiccups and had to leave the auditorium. Of course, that meant I had to see the show again. Believe me, not a problem.
One more ecstatic evening: Watching Bob as Sam, an actor paying the bills as a reservations clerk at an uber-trendy Manhattan restaurant in Fully Committed, at Arizona Theatre Company. It was a one-man show. To call it a one-man tour de force is understatement.
Eventually, Bob left the Valley to make his home in New York City. The good news is that, since making the switch, he has worked more often in the Valley than he has in the Big Apple. At least he will never have to worry about the next meal. I can guarantee you this, Bob Sorenson will never wear out his welcome in Phoenix.
A RARE CHANCE TO SEE BOB IN DRAG
Arizona Theatre Company’s The Mystery of Irma Vep
Bob’s entry at Internet Movie Base: HERE
COMMENTS ON BOB FROM HIS CONTEMPORARIES
“Bob is one of the great stage collaborators. He always comes in with ammunition. He always has an idea to try. He’s always open to ideas from everyone – actors, directors, stage managers. He’s always willing to try anything that might get a laugh.” – Actor and director Cathy Dresbach (directed Bob in “The Wallace and Ladmo Show” and directed by Bob in Theatre Works’ January 2012 production of “The Dixie Swim Club”)
“Bob has an impeccable sense of timing. He’s always on the mark. Always. Like a clock. There’s never a question of whether Bob is going to be where he needs to be, and to be there for other actors.” – – Actor, director and producer Judy Rollings, director of Arts, Education and Outreach at Herberger Theater Center; co-founder Actors Theatre and Theatre Artists Studio (directed Bob in “Orphans” for Actors Theatre)
“What’s completely obvious to me is that Bob is the consummate professional. He’s focused and totally dedicated to the work. If he was in it for himself, he wouldn’t have gone so far. But he’s always there for the story … and the work. Plus, he’s the humblest guy I’ve ever worked with.” – Actor and director Katherine Stewart, artistic director of Desert Rose Theatre (co-starred with Bob in “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum” for Southwest Shakespeare Company).
“As writer of the Wallace and Ladmo play, I put Bob in a strange situation. As Pat McMahon, Bob was the straight man to the actors playing Wallace and Ladmo. But when Bob was playing Pat’s crazy TV characters, Bob had to be the gag guy. And just like that, Bob could switch from being serious to funny.” – Actor, director, playwright and producer Ben Tyler, playwright of “The Wallace and Ladmo Trilogy” and executive director of the Centennial Theatre Foundation.
DON’T LEAVE US, BOBBY
To this day, there are people who wonder why Bob moved to New York City when he had a thriving career. In this October 2000 interview with Arizona Republic theater critic Kyle Lawson, Bob explains it all.
Bob Sorenson leans forward, his elbows on the table, his hands, clasped prayerlike, resting against his nose.
It’s a handsome nose. He recently paid thousands to make it so. Image is everything to an actor, especially one contemplating a move to New York.
“I’ve sold my furniture. I’ve given up my apartment. I’m a homeless gypsy,” he sighs, absently rubbing the ridge of the new beak, which, of course, is no longer a beak.
Long the Valley’s most bankable stage personality, Sorenson is something of a fool for love these days. New York is the home of Susan Cella, an actress he met at Arizona Theatre Company while he was in The Mystery of Irma Vep and she was in Side Man.
Contrary to the cliche, absence isn’t making the heart grow fonder, just desperate — but it’s Sorenson’s luck that nothing ever works out the way he plans.
Shortly after the movers left, Cella signed for the national tour of Fiddler on the Roof. It means 10 months on the road. It’s just as well. She wouldn’t have spent much time with Sorenson.
He’s accepted a contract from Arizona Jewish Theatre Company to direct December’s I’m Not Rappaport. In January, he resurrects his role as Pat McMahon in The Wallace and Ladmo Show. After that, it’s back to the director’s chair for Phoenix Theatre’s Steel Magnolias, which opens in February.
Then there’s ATC’s Art, which moves onto Center Stage at the Herberger Theater Center this week. In Yasmina Reza’s Tony Award-winning comedy, Sorenson is Yvan, the man caught in the middle when friends turn on each other after one buys an all-white painting for a ridiculous amount and tries to pass it off as an artistic masterpiece.
“I’m such a whore,” he says. “Show me a good part and I come running.”
Sorenson is living the Valley actor’s dream. He works constantly for ATC, the state’s largest and most prestigious theater. The achievement is still rare enough to excite comment, though not nearly as rare as it once was.
Prior to the arrival of artistic director David Ira Goldstein in 1992, ATC did most of its casting out of Los Angeles or New York. Ironically, Sorenson was one of the few Valley actors who never took the company to task for its casting habits.
“I never figured they owed me anything,” he says, “even if they did call themselves Arizona Theatre Company. If I got a job with them, I wanted it to be because I was as good as anyone they saw in New York or Los Angeles. I didn’t want them to hire me just because they had to meet some local quota.”
Serious stuff, this. Sorenson would rather talk about golf. It’s a hobby verging on an obsession. A junior-high links champ in his native Tomah, Wis., he came west in 1975 in hopes of making the Arizona State University golf team.
“The definition of a pipe dream,” he says, wryly.
Instead, he became an actor. By the early ’80s, his was the most
recognizable name in local theater. It was a heady time, and the work knew no limits. One month a comedy, the next a challenging drama. Even by his stringent standards, his performances as aimless young drifters in Edward Albee’s The Zoo Story and Lyle Kessler’s Orphans were “pretty damn good.”
It didn’t last. Companies closed. Others hired new artistic directors. Sorenson’s reputation as an edgy, risk-taking actor slipped away, almost without his noticing.
“One day, it dawned on me that the last seven things I had done had been painted in pretty broad comedic strokes,” he says. “That can happen to an actor. There’s a positive response to something and producers say, ‘Look how popular that was; let’s do something else that’s popular.’ ”
It was the musical Hello Muddah, Hello Faddah, a revue based on Allan Sherman’s songs, that gave him his first taste of the New York stage. After the premiere in Phoenix, director Michael Leeds brought Sorenson east to recreate his role.
“I loved New York, really did,” the actor says, “and I realized that, yeah, I could fit in there. But the timing was wrong. Now, I think it’s right.”
It helps that Cella is established in the city. Her contacts mean he’ll be able to walk through some doors that would be closed to most newcomers. But commitment is a bigger draw.
Since his divorce from Phoenix actress Linda DeArmond, Sorenson’s personal relationships never have seemed to take root. The recent death of his father was a sobering reminder that, at 43, he might be missing something important.
“The great thing with Susan and me is that neither of us was looking,” he says. “We were wonderfully blindsided. She’s strong — and I’ve always understood the value of a strong woman. She’s also confident in herself — which means I’ll be able to pursue my dreams and career aspirations within the relationship.”
He’s been struggling to look serious. He loses.
“OK, so when did I know she was the one?” he asks, a grin overwhelming his face.
“It was when she said, ‘Bob, I’d like to learn to play golf.’ ”
PHOTOGRAPHS, REVIEWS & THE KITCHEN SINK
Bob Sorenson directed by Samantha Wyer in “I Am My Own Wife.” 2006-2007 Season at Arizona Theatre Company.
Bob Sorenson as Will in “Oklahoma!” (Unknown Photo Credit)
Bob Sorenson as one of the young suitors in “Fiddler on the Roof.” (Please contact page manager with photo credit)
In 2012, Max McQueen of the East Valley Tribune produced one of the finest interviews with Sorenson to appear in the local press.
“If actor Bob Sorenson were ever to have his own TV series, it would surely be titled, “Everybody Loves Bob.”
And well it should be.
Dishing on fellow actors and directors is part of the territory in show business. And with 30 years on Valley stages under Sorenson’s 34-inch belt, one would think someone somewhere would have some little itsy-bitsy gossip on the 54-year-old actor of stage, TV and film.
But there’s no dirt to be found on one of the Valley’s most popular entertainers of the past half century. Everybody, it seems, truly loves Bob.
In a cut-throat industry where few A-list performers enjoy even a decade of success, Sorenson is celebrating his 30th year entertaining local, regional and national audiences, mostly on stage. From his 1980 debut as a leading man in Tempe Little Theatre’s “Play it Again, Sam” to his current starring role in Arizona Theatre Company’s “God of Carnage,” Sorenson has built a solid reputation as a local box-office draw and an actors’ actor.
The latter accolade, he says, is due to bevy of encouraging and tough teachers.
“I was lucky to have two very special drama teachers back in Tomah, Wis. In junior high, it was Carol Bursinger, and in high school, it was Jym Clark. Both of them instilled in me early on that performing is a team sport. I’ve never forgotten that.”
Although not quite the class clown as a kid, Sorenson says he was aware he had a “pretty decent” sense of humor. That self confidence, buoyed with a dream of being a performer, prompted Sorenson to leave small-town life behind in the mid-’70s and head west to Arizona State University to study communications and theater.
At ASU, Sorenson says he was lucky enough to find not one but five professors who not only nurtured his innate talents but shaped his healthy attitude toward acting.
From drama professor David Vining, Sorenson learned to “open up and be creative.” From theater professors Bill Dobkin and Dan Witt, he honed his now well-known work ethic and professionalism. From communications professors Janet Elsea and Kristen Valentine, Sorenson gained a profound appreciation for the “whole story” and “a great respect for the word.”
As with all aspiring actors, Sorenson worked odd day jobs while waiting for his career to take off. In the early 1980s, Sorenson was a much-in-demand food server at Phoenix’s Pasta Sergio’s, where you’d think he would have added some girth to his string-bean frame. That didn’t happen. Talk about discipline.
“I had a serious talk with my lovely ex-wife Linda DeArmond (also an actress), and we agreed it was time to go for broke. I waited my last table in 1985, and I’ve been working professionally ever since,” says Sorenson.
Actors Lab Arizona and Actors Theatre of Phoenix (ATOP) were Sorenson’s first professional home bases.
Judy Rollings, an ATOP founder, remembers Sorenson’s first audition: “He was wearing khaki pants and a white shirt. He looked kind of preppy. But he blew us all away. He became one of our first resident actors. The thing I most remember about Bob is that he’s always consistent. You can count on him.”
Rollings directed Sorenson in “Orphans,” a heavy drama requiring him to play an emotionally challenged young man.
“That was quite a stretch for Bob, but he got it just right,” she says.
Versatility is another of Sorenson’s strong suits. He does comedy. He does drama. He’s conquered musical comedy, even while not being the world’s best song-and-dance man.
He’s even succeeded at being a romantic lead – this from a lithe guy with a character actor’s face.
Proof of Sorenson’s flexibility and damn-the-torpedoes approach to theater was his willingness to play Arizona TV icon Pat McMahon in “The Wallace and Ladmo Show.”
Ben Tyler wrote the 1999 stage homage to Arizona’s much-loved, legendary kids TV show.
“Can you imagine how hard it would be to play someone who is still alive and who would be sitting on the third row watching you every night? That’s tough, yet Bob took on that challenge,” says Tyler.
Sorenson’s fans are not limited to the Valley. He performs around the country in regional theater. In fact, he will reprise his “God of Carnage” role next spring at the San Jose Repertory Theatre in California.
“Bob is greatly in demand,” says David Ira Goldstein, Arizona Theatre Company’s artistic director. He’s seen Sorenson’s work in a “dozen or so shows” and continues to be amazed at the actor’s ability to go from comedy to drama with the flip of some internal on-off switch.
“He’s a chameleon who can do serious stuff and then turn around and do a wild comedy like ‘The Mystery of Irma Vep.’ Those kinds of actors are rare,” says Goldstein.
“God of Carnage” requires Sorenson to be on all burners comically and dramatically.
In the Rick Lombardo-directed production of Yasmina Reza’s Tony-winning play now at the Herberger, Sorenson is a supposedly button-down husband. But when he loses his cool, he loses it big.
“Reza is very good at using humor to unmask what people say they are and what they really are not too far beneath the surface,” says Sorenson.
“Some people have the misperception that this is a heavy drama. True, it tackles relational and social issues. But it’s loaded with laughs. It shows how, when our buttons are pushed, we quickly turn from civilized folk to cave men.”
Speaking of civility, when Sorenson isn’t on stage, he’s golfing, a life-long passion that’s a genuine stress reducer for him. For the past four summers, he’s been a golf instructor at the Junior Golf Institute in Brooklyn, near his New York home.
He also has a home in Phoenix – not just to be close to work and friends and fun, but also to be smack-dab in the middle of golf country.
While Sorenson takes his show business career seriously, one gets the feeling he’d be perfectly content to spend the rest of his life on the links. Having a life outside of theater helps Sorenson keep a practical perspective on the ups and downs of life in show business.
“The secret to my success? First, it’s perseverance. Secondly, it’s a complete lack of cynicism. When you start being cynical because you can’t get work, you’re digging yourself into a hole. I refuse to do that.”
1998 Arizona Community Foundation
NOTABLE TELEVISION PERFORMANCES
• “Boardwalk Empire,” 2010
• “Law & Order: Criminal Intent,” 2003
• “Law & Order,” 2002-2004
• “Hijacked: Flight 285,” 1996
• “Shattered Innocence” (Sorenson’s TV debut), 1988
NOTABLE FILM PERFORMANCES
• “Family Plan,” with Leslie Nielsen, 1997
• “Lightning Jack,” with Paul Hogan, 1994
• “The Vagrant,” with Bill Paxton, 1992
• “Madhouse,” with John Larroquette, 1990
• “Not Quite Human II,” 1989
NOTABLE THEATER PERFORMANCES
• “I Am My Own Wife,” Arizona Theatre Company, 2007
• “The Wallace and Ladmo Show,” 1999, Desert Foothills Theater
• “No Sex Please, We’re British,” Tempe Little Theatre, 1982
• “Billy Bishop Goes to War,” Actors Theatre of Phoenix, 1992
• “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum,” Southwest Shakespeare Company, 1998
• “The Mystery of Irma Vep,” Arizona Theatre Company, 1999
• “Inspecting Carol,” Scottsdale Center for the Arts, 1993
• “Greater Tuna,” Davis Productions, 1998
• “Orphans,” Actors Theatre of Phoenix, 1987
• “Little Shop of Horrors,” Actors Lab Arizona, 1986