Dinner and a show: Mother, son bring musical theater home in Portland's West End

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PORTLAND — 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.

Ben McCanna can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 125 or bmccanna@theforecaster.net. Follow him on Twitter: @BenMcCanna.

Sidebar Elements

The hand of David Worobec enters from stage left at Tophat Toy Theater – a DIY dinner-theater experience in a townhouse on Portland’s West End – during a recent performance of “Les Miserables.” Worobec – a 25-year-old one-man theater troupe – sang all the parts while simultaneously manipulating about 45 toy characters, running the lights and music cues, and changing sets that were designed by his mother, Polly Plimpton.

David Worobec is visible from “backstage” at Tophat Toy Theater. His mother, Polly Plimpton, also served dinner to 14 guests. In this scene, Fantine, a factory worker, is fired for having a child out of wedlock.

David Worobec lights candles before dinner at Tophat Toy Theater.

Polly Plimpton serves a dinner of baked salmon for 14 guests in her home, which also serves as Tophat Toy Theater. Earlier that same day, Plimpton also put the final touches on set designs for “Les Miserables.”

Guests take their seats for a salmon dinner at Tophat Toy Theater.

David Worobec works “backstage” to prepare for Act II of “Les Miserables” during a recent performance at Tophat Toy Theater.

Performances are free at Tophat Toy Theater, but the theater accepts donations.