Couching Their Feelings

An opera based on a Russian silent film would seem the sort of artsy endeavor that invites dismissive sneers from musical and movie buffs alike. But with its abundance of artful understatement, a score that out-lilts most songfests and a touching story that examines age-old questions with modern frankness, Bed and Sofa proves an enjoyable mixture of down-to-earth feeling, high-minded music and melodramatic fun.

What's more, the latest offering from Boulder's Trouble Clef Theatre Company, which is being presented at the New Nomad Theatre, boasts three outstanding performances that, along with a four-piece chamber orchestra's nuanced playing, bolster the local troupe's growing reputation as a premier presenter of musicals.

Leading the company is Karen LaMoureaux, whose entrancing portrayal of Ludmilla, an unfulfilled housewife, carries the drama over several rough spots. While wrestling with her warring affections for her unborn child, her husband and one of his old army buddies, the lithe actress also makes good use of her lovely mezzo-soprano, which has a habit of gloriously floating above the quirks embedded in composer Polly Pen's chromatic score. She summons Ludmilla's yearning for a better life while lamenting, "I seldom have the honor of going out with my husband," subtly reveals her tenderness after having been treated to a movie by her husband's houseguest (and her sometime lover) and expertly delivers several arias that, within the space of a few measures, waver between feelings of bemused defiance and tragic helplessness. And LaMoureaux negotiates a few comedic episodes with admirable aplomb, earning laughter when, torn between the Socialist way of life and her volatile romantic feelings, she drunkenly careens about the apartment while crooning, "You won't trust your leaders/I won't trust my lovers!" to an empty shot glass that, placed at one end of the kitchen table, represents Mother Russia.

Although LaMoureaux commands the stage during her solo scenes, she's even more effective when paired with the wonderfully harmonic duo of Nitzan Sitzer, a tenor who plays the sofa-camping Volodya, and David Ambroson, a baritone who assumes the part of Ludmilla's somewhat obtuse mate, Kolya ("Don't forget to scrub the floor!" he ominously declares just before leaving for work). Whether they're exchanging small talk over a claustrophobic game of checkers, giving voice to shared musings while inhabiting distinctly separate locales or arguing about their round-robin tournament of mutual betrayal, the trio's voices dovetail and blend with blissful precision. (Credit vocal director Brian du Fresne, who also serves as pianist/conductor, with shaping the singers' efforts as well as shepherding the musicians through a cavalcade of folksy tunes, atonal cacophony and a recurring interlude that's bound to stir the hearts of Tchaikovsky aficionados.)

And, like LaMoureaux, Sitzer and Ambroson complement their fine singing with expressive gestures and economical movement. Indeed, Sitzer is instantly likable and credible as the fresh-faced and impish Volodya, a tradesman who travels to post-revolution Moscow in search of work, only to learn upon arriving that he must find a place to live before he will be permitted to secure a job -- which, ostensibly, will provide him with the money to afford a place to live. While he plays most scenes with an infectious combination of pathos and mirth, Sitzer's most memorable moment comes when he conveys silent glee at his rival's decision to temporarily vacate the premises. For his part, Ambroson is a formidable presence as the love triangle's third (and ill-fitting) leg, a construction worker who gets called out of town immediately after he opens his home to his former comrade in arms. Midway through the drama, Ambroson tugs on our heartstrings as he reflects on his outcast state while, the very picture of dishevelment, he leans against a park bench and admits that he's only "put together" when he's with his wife.

The ninety-minute, wholly sung show is performed on a slightly angled setting (designed by Charles Dean Packard) that's illuminated by a monochromatic array of lighting (fashioned by Brian Miller), an arrangement that helps director Donald Berlin to evoke a few indelibly film-like images. Dialogue simply isn't needed, for instance, when Sitzer places his index finger on LaMoureaux's cheek and wipes away a single tear, or when the two lovebirds, flush from their evening out, barely brush against each other while removing their overcoats.

To be sure, the transitions between scenes could use some smoothing out; it's jarring, for example, when the characters semi-freeze in place as the lights fade and then, following several seconds' worth of silence, burst once more into song. Or when a narrator's recorded voice periodically intones vaguely revolutionary sayings, such as "Man is a sensuous being, and to be sensuous is to suffer." While those elements might be intended to suggest primitive cinematic techniques and effects (the musical is based on Abram Room's 1927 film of the same name, which in turn is based on a scenario by Viktor Shklovsky), they tend to get in the way of a good story instead of embellishing the manner in which it's told.

But those are minor worries in what amounts to the Trouble Clef's crowning achievement to date. Founded six years ago "to pursue new directions in musical theater," the group has taken on ambitious projects (such as Sondheim's Passion and Anyone Can Whistle) that, if not always polished to perfection, have been marked by their inventive staging, crisp musical direction and top-notch performances, particularly in the leading roles. It's altogether gratifying, then, to witness the company's years of hard work pay off in a production where art takes precedence over personality, and where every note, gesture and utterance feels right at home.