PICK ASR!~ ~~ “Galileo” Soars at Berkeley Rep

By Barry Willis

The centuries-old battle between reason and faith may never be better staged than in Galileo: A Rock Musical, at Berkeley Rep through June 23.

Perhaps historically accurate and certainly plausible, Danny Strong’s three-hour world premiere ushers its audience into the huge Roda Theatre with giant immersive projections of ancient cosmological charts (Jason H. Thompson and Kaitlyn Pietras, projection designers), which soon segue into a horrific depiction of the execution of unrepentant atheist Bruno Giordano.

“… It’s a work of collaborative genius. …”

The sympathies of the playwright and director Michael Mayer are immediately clear. Welcome to the history of the Roman Catholic Church.

Four-time Tony Award nominee Raul Esparza stars as Galileo Galilei, the 17th-century mathematician/inventor/astronomer whose refinement of the telescope made possible his detailed observations of planetary and stellar movements, verifying earlier work by Copernicus and upending the Church’s long-held belief in the Ptolemaic (or geocentric) model of the universe, with the Earth at the center and all other heavenly bodies revolving around it.

Raúl Esparza (Galileo Galilei, center) and the cast of “Galileo: A Rock Musical”, making its world premiere at Berkeley Repertory Theatre. Photo credit: Kevin Berne

Galileo did his work with the encouragement of his friend, Bishop Maffeo Barberini (Jeremy Kushnier), a liberal, forward-thinking clergyman who later rose through the clerical ranks to become Pope Urban VIII, head of the church and the nation of Italy. Galileo’s promotion of a heliocentric model of the known universe was a threat to the hegemony of the church, then suffering a rebellion by Protestants in Germany and elsewhere. He was accused of heresy and only his long relationship with the pope and his forced recantation saved him from a death sentence. He spent the remainder of his life under house arrest and published other treatises but never again ventured into astronomy.

That’s the synopsis of the core story of this spectacular musical, certainly one of the most original and audacious large-scale productions to come along in years. It’s magnificent in every respect. Rachel Hauck’s enormous, elegant set couldn’t be better or more appropriate, nor could Anita Yavich’s costumes or the adroit, athletic large-cast choreography by David Neumann.

Ticket buyers are encouraged to engage in as much research as they can to fill in potential blanks, but even those going in cold and knowing little about the historical facts will be astounded. Music director Roberto Sihha gets the utmost from Michael Weiner and Zoe Sarnak’s hard-rock music thanks to a terrific eight-piece band and superb sound design by John Shivers.

Christian Magby (Alessandro Tarantola) and Madalynn Mathews (Virginia Galilei) in the world premiere of “Galileo” at Berkeley Rep. Photo credit: Kevin Berne

Esparza is a tremendous singer and convincing actor, as is Madalynn Mattews as Galileo’s daughter Virginia. She’s a powerful and evocative pop-rock singer. The show’s secondary plot about her life is compelling on its own. Kushnier’s high tenor—venturing here and there into falsetto—is very effective too.

In recent years, the use of high-brightness/high-definition projections has been a revolution in live theater. Nowhere is this more obvious than in Galileo. We first see the night sky as if through the unaided eye, then thousands more stars as if through the telescope—a phenomenon dismissed as a trick by some of Galileo’s inquisitors. One of them mocks the effect, saying “He has crystals in his device to make it look that way.“ Others refuse to look through it at all, deeming it a devilish invention. The band of red-robed cardinals and bishops stand high on a parapet during his trial, chanting “faith, faith, faith” like an evangelical mantra.

Jeremy Kushnier (Bishop Maffeo Barberini) and Raúl Esparza (Galileo Galilei) in “Galileo: A Rock Musical”, at Berkeley Repertory Theatre now through June 23, 2024. Photo credit: Kevin Berne

The creators and cast of Galileo are clearly against blind adherence to religious doctrine. That’s all to the good; the show falters only in not better mining some emotional nuances, such as Galileo’s personal struggle with renouncing his discoveries vs. saving his life. It also skims the thorny issue of his former friend abandoning rationality and personal loyalty in favor of political expediency.

But these are minor quibbles. Galileo is one of the greatest productions that any of us may ever see. It’s destined for Broadway, where it will likely run forever, and justifiably so. It’s a work of collaborative genius.

Not to give anything away, but the closing moment when the cast comes onstage is a poignant reminder that issues of reason vs. faith are still very much with us today. We have legislators, policymakers, and many others with strong influence, who are adamant science deniers. Even today, in an age of space exploration, organ transplants, and ultra-high technology, true believers will say “Science is Satan’s way of deceiving you.” Keep that in mind when you enter the world of Galileo.


ASR Nor Cal Edition Executive Editor Barry Willis is a member of the American Theatre Critics Association and president of the SF Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle. Contact: barry.m.willis@gmail.com


ProductionGalileo: A Rock Musical
Written by Danny Strong

Music and Lyrics by Michael Weiner and Zoe Sarnak
Directed by Michael Mayer
Producing CompanyBerkeley Repertory Theatre
Production DatesThru June 23, 2024
Production Address2025 Addison Street, Berkeley CA 94704
Telephone(510) 847-2949
Reviewer ScoreMax in each category is 5/5
Aisle Seat Review Pick?YES!