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Stage Door: <i>Restoration, Phantom of the Opera</i>

If you weren't in love with Michelangelo's David, before, you will be after, Claudia Shear's love letter to the world's most famous sculpture.
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If you weren't in love with Michelangelo's David, before, you will be after Restoration, Claudia Shear's love letter to the world's most famous sculpture. Shear, who stars in and wrote this lovely, multilayered drama at New York Theater Workshop, addresses the power of art to restore and sustain the human spirit. A talented playwright, she's equally sensitive to the price of obsession.

Shear plays Giulia, an art restorer banished by the museum establishment for her brash opinions. When this "master of the finer touches" is offered an extraordinary opportunity -- to "refresh" the David in time for its 500th birthday celebration in Florence -- she envisions a new future. The experience will not only revitalize the Renaissance masterpiece, it will transform an embittered Giulia.

In fact, Restoration is a thoughtful meditation on our relationship to art -- and the cost of sublimating desire to objects, however beautiful and important. Cast in the contrapposto style, the David has captivated the public from the moment it was unveiled in 1504. Michelangelo considered sculpture the highest form of art, since it tried to emulate divine creation. His artistry has clearly enamored Guilia, whose passion is shared by the museum's press officer, the wealthy and beautiful Daphne (Tina Benko); Marciante, the top curator (a stylish and versatile Natalija Nogulich); an art history professor who recommends Guilia for the job (Alan Mandell); and Max (Jonathan Cake), a handsome Italian security guard. All are perfectly cast.

Each has a unique relationship to the David; but it's the yearlong exchanges between Guilia and Max that give the academic elements of Restoration its heart. Smart and often funny, Restoration is a clever exploration of the ties that bind -- professional and personal. Shear and Cake have real chemistry; aided by Christopher Ashley's fluid direction and Scott Pask's streamlined set.

Classics come in all shapes and mediums. "The art of making art, is putting it together." The lyric is Sondheim's, but the declaration defines Phantom of the Opera. A lush score, exquisite costumes, fantastical sets and a compelling story rewarded the Andrew Lloyd Webber production with seven Tonys. It's also the longest-running show in Broadway history, now in its 23rd year at the Majestic Theater.

What accounts for its longevity? The producers have kept the show exciting; Phantom's cast sustains the high performance level that brought it initial accolades. Seen by nearly 14 million people, the New York production has grossed more than $765 million.

But the real draw is a timeless story, aided by Harold Prince's directorial flourishes and a theatrical Grand Guignol charm. The special effects, notable in 1988, still work. The pacing is somewhat languid, given its romantic ethos, a marked contrast to current musicals, like Memphis and American Idiot, which pride themselves on fast, electric deliveries. Phantom is a spectacle with a compelling theme. (That all three are playing on the same street attests to the changes on Broadway.)

Based on the 1909 novel by Gaston Leroux, Phantom of the Opera is a tale of unrequited love. A masked figure lurks beneath the catacombs of the Paris Opera House, periodically terrorizing its resident cast, including a pompous diva Carlotta, (Patricia Phillips) and arrogant opera owners. The "Opera Ghost" has a mission -- to see a young soprano, Christine (a lovely Jenifer Hope Wills), become a star.

As the Phantom escalates his threats, we meet a gifted man twisted by rejection, yet yearning for love and acceptance. "The Music of the Night" ballad beautifully captures his longing, much as the gorgeously ornate "Masquerade" celebrates illusion. A perennial favorite is "All I Ask Of You," the love ballad sung by Christine and her suitor Raoul (Ryan Silverman).

There have been more than 10 phantoms since Michael Crawford first donned the mask. I saw understudy Paul A. Schaefer, filling in for John Cudia, and he was sensational, playing the tortured romantic with the flourish and pathos this melodrama requires. Though the cast periodically changes, their standards do not. The old-fashioned draw of Phantom, renewed a few years ago by Joel Schumacher's film version, remains. Heartbreak, rendered bizarre and baroque, never looked so artistic.