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"Galileo: A Rock Musical" show #888

Updated: Jun 4

Berkeley Repertory Theatre has premiered a new rock musical by Danny Strong (Book), Michael Weiner and Zoe Sarnak (Music and Lyrics) that is focused on Galileo Galilei and his battle between teaching Copernicus’s heliocentrism theory; a theory where the Sun is the center of the solar system rather than the Earth. More juicy, though, is the musical’s depiction of Galileo’s battle against his dear friend, Bishop (turned Cardinal, turned Pope) Maffeo Barberini. I went into the Saturday matinee performance with a basic knowledge of the scientific side of the famed scientist but not the faith-based struggle Galileo and his daughter, Virginia, held. With this production being a world premiere, the musical is still finding its bearings, especially with several instances of repetitive lyrics, and the louder/quieter motif not being at a level of elevating beyond being seen as placeholders until the musical decides where it wants to go. However, I assure you it is worthy of the musical stage because this is a story clearly about rivalry, power, and how two things can be true simultaneously. 

(Raul Esparza (Galileo) and cast; Photo credit: Kevin Berne/Berkeley Repertory Theatre)

By the musical’s end, I found myself deeply compelled by Strong’s book, especially with the dialogue between Galileo, played expertly by Raul Esparza, and Barberini, played divinely by Jeremy Kushnier. These two actors show why they have been Broadway staples, for two-plus decades, as they slow-burn-play their friends-turned-enemies' chemistry with precise inflection and focused pacing. Of course, Michael Mayer’s seasoned direction is peppered throughout the show, though the audience feels every minute of the two-and-a-half-hour runtime. However, Strong’s book is a script I could sit in for hours. The content of Galileo's dream of using his scientifically gifted mind to further the biblical teachings that the Catholic church held–and still holds–so devotedly makes the dramatization a pleasure to watch. As it stands, I think that while the music surpasses the shortcomings of the lyrics, the script sings loudest. Galileo is a musical that wants to sing and, at times, even earns its singing, but in the iteration I saw, it’s not a story that needs to sing.

(Jeremy Kushnier (Barberini) and Raul Esparza (Galileo); Photo credit: Kevin Berne/Berkeley Repertory Theatre)

Esparza’s titular leading of the production is a stalwart piece of work, where his vocals soar as often as his dramatic scenes and well-earned comedic takes. I found myself laughing more often than expected in a rock opera centered on science and faith, but Esparza, Kushnier, and Madalynn Mathews, who plays Virginia, do a fine job giving room to Strong’s funnier lines. Strong’s writing, Mayer’s direction, and the aforementioned trio of actors humanize these historical figures into a much more relatable form, which most of the best rock operas tend to do. Every time Esparza delivers a quiet prayer or sings a rock belt, the audience is consistently gifted with a fully realized and committed performance. Kushnier, though, has the more intriguing journey. His delivery of Barberini’s rise to power is crafty, deeply felt, and easily the strongest written arc in the musical. Kushnier’s lambasts are given the right amount of power-driven ego, while his softer moments of kindness and encouragement are colored with sincerity and warmth. Kushnier’s vocals, like Esparza’s, soar in the score, but none more than in his reflective act one solo, where he sings the lines to a poem written in awe of and respect for Galileo. 

(Madalynn Mathews (Virginia) and Raul Esparza (Galileo); Photo credit: Kevin Berne/Berkeley Repertory Theatre)

Mathews drives the B-plot as Galileo’s daughter, who is nearly a colleague to and is on par with her father’s scientifically gifted intelligence at the musical’s beginning but is denied a marriage she wants due to a lack of dowry and an unfavorable family reputation. She is consigned to a convent where her vows to God run deep, only to be skewed when Galileo consults her when writing his Dialogue. The role of Virginia needs more shaping, so her trajectory is a straight shot rather than scattered like the very constellations she’s interpreting. Mathews’ voice does well in the score, but she truly triumphs in her act two lament–an example of when this musical does earn its need to sing–opposite Galileo when expressing her fears over her father’s fate if he doesn’t recant his scientific opinion. Other highlighted supporting performances are given by Bradley Dean as Bishop Grasso and Javier Munoz as Cardinal Morosini, whose characters spark much of the anti-Galileo discourse. They have just enough song and scene time to give their excellent duo plenty to play with, and Dean emotes in a beautifully delivered crisis-of-conviction confession after Galileo’s final sentencing. 

(Christian Magby (Alessandro) and Madalynn Mathews (Virginia); Photo credit: Kevin Berne/Berkeley Repertory Theatre)

The technical aspects are given stellar design, with Rachel Hauck’s multi-level scenic design standing out and leaving enough room for Galileo’s solitary moments to have an aesthetic impact that serves the multi-locale production efficiently and effectively. Jason H. Thompson and Kaitlyn Pietras’s projection design does an excellent job giving animation to the aura of the starry nights and moody backdrops in complement to Kevin Adams’s outstanding lighting design. Anita Yavich’s costume design perfectly balances the rock aesthetic with period-appropriate religious garbs. 

I look forward to seeing Galileo’s journey from premiere to grounded musical in its coming iterations. As of the matinee I took in, the drama is embedded and well-delivered, and the length is apparent. Still, with Esparza and company taking on Galileo’s story, the musical will find its center for orbit and, like Galileo’s work with the stars, will continue working to discover where to center the story for optimal gravitational pull.

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