Some acts are tough to follow. After a highly successful staging of Claude-Michel Schonberg’s Les Miserables at Moorpark’s High Street earlier this summer, the Actors’ Repertory Theatre of Simi (ARTS) faced a dilemma: how to deliver a production that feels true to the original while providing potential crossover audiences with a fresh experience?

Director David Ralphe has opted for a simplified staging, closer to an embellished Hollywood Bowl concert than a full-blown production. Ralphe invested in the voices, which musical director and conductor Matthew Park has honed into a splendid ensemble and some marvelous soloists. But the musical attentiveness appears to have come at the expense of the sets, costumes, and performances. Though magnificently sung, the production at times misses the transportive magic and emotional stakes that make the drama so compelling.  

When the ensemble sings as one, the effect is spine-tingling. Ben Deschaine makes a worthy adversary as the dogged Javert, and Rehyan Rivera is a compelling Marius whose vitality offsets the role’s aloofness. As the street-hardened Eponine, Mazie Wilson offers a wrenching version of “On My Own” and one of the cast’s strongest performances.
A more grizzled actor, however, might have more easily conveyed the depth of Jean Valjean’s suffering, though lead Geoffrey Going tries valiantly. Likewise, Mary Zastrow, despite a lovely voice, seems removed from the urgency of Fantine’s plight. Awkward staging, as in Fantine’s death scene, introduces humor instead of pathos. Several scenes take place in front of the curtain on a bare stage, while anachronistic costuming details like suspenders disrupt the period effect. Soundtrack aficionados will be pleased, but those seeking a more holistic theatrical experience might find themselves let down.

Across town, Cabaret, the Kander and Ebb musical about lost souls seeking refuge in a Berlin nightclub as Nazism rises around them, depicts characters from a decidedly different milieu. The Skyway Playhouse has tackled the play’s adult themes head-on, with its enthusiastic cast exploring themes of homosexuality, promiscuity, abortion and anti-Semitism. Arryck Adams gives a riveting performance as the infamous, androgynous Emcee (Adams also serves as the show’s choreographer), though the cast sometimes lacks the experience to live up to director Elissa Anne Polansky’s sophisticated vision.

Adams’ bawdy choregraphy is performed with varying degrees of conviction by the young ensemble, with Frenchie (dance captain Aimee Tittlemeier) and the pigtailed Helga (Kendall Mordetzky) noteworthy standouts. Adams is magnetic onstage, tweaking moral conventions and lurking in the sidelines as a kind of incarnation of sexual and artistic freedom. But Kelli Kay’s energetic portrayal of the fiercely resilient Sally Bowles underplays the headliner’s sultriness. Michael Beck embraces starving writer Clifford Bradshaw’s ambivalent sexuality, but he and Kay never quite sell the moral decay that makes the political undertones so potent.

Their countparts, Kathleen Silverman and Ronald Rezac, deliver charming performances as a German landlady and the Jewish grocer trying to woo her. The couple’s shy respectability makes a delightful contrast to the sordid goings-on of the cabaret. And as the sailor-obsessed Rosie, Autumn Corbett Bodily delivers comic relief and stirring German ballads. While the production doesn’t hit every high note, the cast largely succeeds in evoking the strange and menacing world of the cabaret.

Les Miserables, through Aug. 25, Simi Valley Cultural Arts Center, 3050 Los Angeles Ave., Simi Valley, 583-7900,; Cabaret, through Aug. 25, Skyway Playhouse, 330 Skyway Drive, Camarillo, 388-5716,