Portland man, mother convert West End home into elaborate ‘toy theater’

Posted May 21, 2014, at 12:57 p.m.
Last modified May 21, 2014, at 4:02 p.m.

PORTLAND, Maine — The music swells. The background lights soften. Two characters stand alone downstage and profess their love through song.

From stage left, a giant hand emerges and presses the characters together in an embrace.

The hand belongs to David Worobec, a 25-year-old, classically trained singer and mastermind behind the Tophat Toy Theater — a do-it-yourself dinner theater that he and his mother run from their home in the West End.

For the past year, Worobec and Polly Plimpton have been hosting occasional dinner theater performances in their roomy Victorian-era townhouse on Carleton Street. Plimpton builds the sets and prepares the meals. Worobec is a one-man theater troupe.

From behind a veil of folding screens, Worobec manipulates dozens of toy figurines within a toy theater. He changes sets. He runs the lights — a series of LED headlamps that he dims by partially eclipsing the beams with his fingers. He runs recorded music from a laptop computer.

Most of all, he sings.

Worobec is a 2010 graduate of the Boston Conservatory, where he studied operatic singing. He’s a natural baritone, but for Tophat performances he’ll go to the far upper register.

During a recent performance of “Les Miserables,” Worobec sang all the parts — from the dashing Jean Valjean to the petite Eponine. He does it all from memory — no teleprompter or lyric sheet — and has a repertoire of about a dozen musicals, including “South Pacific” [which he will perform on June 7], “Man of La Mancha” and “Little Shop of Horrors.”

The performances are free and are preceded by a complimentary gourmet meal with a choice of beer, wine or seltzer, and an array of cheeses as appetizers. During intermission, dessert is served. During the May 15 showing of “Les Mis,” 14 guests were treated to salmon baked in a ginger-and-garlic marinade, wild rice and salad.

Near the buffet table, a ceramic pitcher sat for donations. A sign above it said “Feed the artist.”

For the most part, the audience consists of invited guests. Lately, however, the theater has earned a word-of-mouth reputation. People are now calling Worobec to reserve spots on the guest list.

This latest development is fine with Worobec and Plimpton, who moved to Portland from Boston a year ago. The performances serve as a means to meet new people and find a place within the community, which is fitting because Worobec developed his love for musicals as a means of communication.

Worobec has nonverbal learning disorder, or “learning differences,” Plimpton said. As a child, Worobec had difficulty conversing with others. When he was 7, however, he made an important discovery: opera.

“In opera, people hold entire conversations without talking. You sing the conversations. That was something that appealed to David immensely,” said Plimpton, a securities lawyer who works from home.

From a young age, Worobec had already shown signs that he was a singer, but the discovery of musical theater — particularly “The Phantom of the Opera” — brought it to the forefront. For the next two years, Worobec performed “Phantom” for his parents on car trips, around the house, or for friends of the family.

When Worobec began incorporating toy figures into the performances, Plimpton built him a miniature stage out of an antique wooden ammunition box, the beginnings of a partnership that would continue throughout Worobec’s adolescence into the present.

Over the years, Plimpton built stages of increasing sophistication, eventually incorporating lights, curtains and miniature high-relief sculptures. She built elaborate sets, too, with dollhouse furniture glued to freestanding components that can be quickly added or removed from the stage.

Worobec began amassing figurines for his productions; some generic, others highly recognizable, which results in some stunt casting decisions. In “Les Mis,” for instance, the Thenerdiers were “played” by Beetle-Juice and Disney’s Cruella de Vil. Some minor characters were played by barefooted hobbits from the “Lord of the Rings” trilogy.

While at the conservatory, Worobec began inviting classmates to his parents’ Boston home for toy theater performances. Those events eventually morphed into large dinner gatherings with neighbors, conservatory teachers and friends. The free, intimate, invitation-only events can be performed without licensing, Plimpton said.

In their new city, the pair invites complete strangers in for the shows. Plimpton, 65, said she hopes the performances will help Worobec find new like-minded friends or evolve into a means of employment.

In the meantime, the pair will continue to hold dinner performances and Plimpton will continue to design sets that are “worthy of his voice.”

“We’re lucky we have each other,” Plimpton said.

To arrange an invitation to Tophat Toy Theater, contact Worobec at 617-510-2883 or davidworobec@rocketmail.com.