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A Battle Between Science and Religion, With Galileo Caught in the Middle

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Raúl Esparza (Galileo Galilei) in the world premiere of 'Galileo: A Rock Musical' at Berkeley Repertory Theatre. (Kevin Berne)

During the Renaissance era, the conflicting bedfellows of religion and science had clear delineations, dictated by Earth’s highest stewards to Heaven’s gates. “Science asks questions, but the Bible gives the answers,” thundered Pope Urban VIII, verbalizing the view of many in Europe’s 16th and 17th centuries.

While Galileo Galilei fancied himself a strong purveyor of both the scientific and theological, his moral core of truth at the center of his existence faced a brutal reckoning — one that ultimately ripped both his body and soul to shreds.

In the spellbinding yet problematic world premiere musical Galileo, which opened May 15 at Berkeley Repertory Theatre, discoveries made in both science and religion complicate matters. Its storyline is greatly informed by the modern-day war on truth, loaded with a ceaselessly high-octane rock music score exploited mightily by the wicked talents of director Michael Mayer.

Jeremy Kushnier (Bishop Maffeo Barberini) and Raúl Esparza (Galileo Galilei) in the world premiere of ‘Galileo: A Rock Musical’ at Berkeley Repertory Theatre. (Kevin Berne)

Galileo Galilei (Raúl Esparza) has taken root in his laboratory, a man of 45 who has trouble blindly accepting the religious view that Earth is the center of the universe. After all, that view had been challenged years prior by fellow polymath Nicolaus Copernicus in the famed heliocentric model, where Earth and other planets were shown to revolve around the sun.

An affirmation of those teachings, thanks to Galileo’s enhancement of the telescope, has proved unsatisfactory to the dominant biblical divinity of Catholic doctrine, which citizens believe to be infallible. Yet Galileo still carries some support, despite the dominance of Cardinal Morosini (Javier Muñoz), who gives no space for what he perceives as anti-Bible sentiments.


The support of Galileo’s close ally Bishop Barberini (Jeremy Kushnier) contributes greatly to his desire to continue locking horns with the Catholic establishment, and when Barberini is elevated as pontiff and becomes Pope Urban VIII, Galileo is poised to break through and declare truth the victor. Yet an effort by the pope to slow the public acceleration of Galileo’s scientific theories, introduced in Galileo’s book comparing the Copernican system with the accepted and less truthful Ptolemaic system, comes with an offensive slight, accelerating Galileo’s demise.

Raúl Esparza (Galileo Galilei, center) and the cast of ‘Galileo: A Rock Musical’ at Berkeley Repertory Theatre. (Kevin Berne)

So many elements of spectacle allow the musical to brew and breathe within a white-hot fire, with music thrusting itself to the top of the ticket. Composers Michael Weiner and Zoe Sarnak unleash consecutive bangers, challenging their vocalists with vein-popping verve, melodies and divine harmonies as persistent as Galileo himself. Those compositions are nestled neatly inside Danny Strong’s book.

Each challenge is accepted by the cast, led by Broadway stalwart Esparza, who digs mightily into every ounce of his scintillating, grizzled register. A delicious counterpoint to Esparza’s wide-ranging vocals is his commitment to Galileo’s painful and joyous discoveries. His eyes accentuate each arc in every moment, a broken and beaten man who is constantly reminded that power decides truth, not the other way around.

Christian Magby (Alessandro Tarantola) and Madalynn Mathews (Virginia Galilei) in the world premiere of ‘Galileo: A Rock Musical’ at Berkeley Repertory Theatre.

Kushnier’s mellifluity lives within its own constellation, a buttery-smooth falsetto that spotlights tenderness and admiration for Galileo, especially in his solo “By Thy Light I See.” Muñoz, Esparza’s fellow Broadway star, commands respect as the uncompromising Morosini, and Madelynn Mathews as Galileo’s embattled daughter Virginia, whose illegitimacy thrusts her away from love and into a cloistered life, gives a master class in vocals and empathy. These four craft a narrative that elevates the entire company in a show that gets louder and louder as time passes.

Where the piece needs harnessing begins late in the second act, when a certain theme carries on much too long, ultimately diluting the critical nature of its voice. It’s as if the concept of truth and its virtues need constant repeating, which drags the entire narrative down. A piece that moves towards three hours needs to slap incessantly; this is not the case here.

Raúl Esparza (Galileo Galilei) and the cast of ‘Galileo: A Rock Musical’ at Berkeley Repertory Theatre. (Kevin Berne)

Still, the show feels as if it’s hurtling somewhere with no expense spared, especially through the technical design. Scenic work by Tony Award winner Rachel Hauck pairs beautifully with Anita Yavich’s nuanced and sparkly costume plot. Jason H. Thompson, along with Kaitlyn Pietras, go all in on Christian symbolism through their passionate projection design, combined sharply with the lighting of Kevin Adams.

There are many morsels that challenge in Strong’s book, and a critical question is posed: “When does the truth cost too much?” Thankfully for Galileo, and in a lesson for the masses, a legacy and the truth are not for sale.

‘Galileo’ runs through June 23 at Berkeley Repertory Theatre in downtown Berkeley. Details here.

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