Review:  Truth takes on power in Berkeley Rep’s bold new musical ‘Galileo’   

Berkeley Repertory Theatre’s world-premiere “Galileo” is an exuberant rock musical that seeks to get into the brilliant mind of the 16th-century polymath who challenged the Catholic Church with his theories on astronomy and ended up answering to the Italian Inquisition.  

The relevance tag is clear: What prevails — truth or power?

Jeremy Kushnier, left, plays a bishop who becomes pope, and an enemy to Galileo (Raúl Esparza), in the world premiere of “Galileo: A Rock Musical.” (Courtesy Kevin Berne) 

The writing team (music and lyrics by Michael Weiner and Zoe Sarnak, book by Danny Strong) has created a lyrically dense musical biography that works on most levels. The fresh, bold show suggests a Broadway-and-beyond future.

To explore the character of the brilliant, tortured Galileo, the score draws from rock, pop, ballad, jazz, and even ventures into operatic territory with the song “Louder, Louder.”

Driving music and lyrics illustrate Galileo’s inner conflicts that bring the character to life. He’s turbulent, triumphant and torn between fidelity to his faith and his science, believing that the Sun, not the Earth, is the center of the universe.

Raúl Esparza as Galileo Galilei is riveting. As intense in his own faith as he is about scientific theory, he plays his theories off Bishop Maffeo Barberini (superbly acted by Jeremy Kushnier), a world-wise and witty cleric who likes and admires him and wants to protect him.

Esparza packs a lot of passion into his bright baritone and takes the stage with dazzling physicality. His science-minded daughter Virginia (Madalynn Mathews) might seem a strange addition; yet she is his vibrant sounding board. She is accomplished, but, given the place of women in the day, ends up in a nunnery.

When Barberini becomes Pope Urban VIII, he turns the tide. He takes offense when Galileo’s published writing insults him, calls out the Inquisition and Galileo is put under house arrest for life.

Director Michael Mayer (“Spring Awakening,” “American Idiot”) in a well-detailed production focuses on character. Galileo is a complex stew of brilliance and madness with a mind both brilliant and crazed.


Madalynn Mathews and Raúl Esparza portray daughter and father in Berkeley Repertory Theatre’s premiere of “Galileo: A Rock Musical.” (Courtesy Kevin Berne)

The music gets a fiery performance by an ensemble of eight musicians (keyboards, guitars, strings and drums), though some of the softer laments are covered by solo guitar to good effect.  

David Neumann’s choreography is stunning, but there could be more movement to carry the show, particularly in Act 2, which, apart from a swinging chorus of clerics, reads almost like a history lesson describing point by point the Pope’s betrayal and Galileo’s demise.  
Sumptuous costumes by Anita Yavich, and projections and lighting by Jason Thompson, Kaitlyn Pietras and Kevin Adams serve the show well. Neon-lit images of early Christian altarpieces, whirling rose windows and mathematical formulas flash on and off monastery walls below starry heavens to dazzling effect. 
“Galileo” — developed following a presentation sponsored by New York Stage and Film and Vassar’s Powerhouse Theater in 2019 — is likely going places. 

Berkeley Repertory Theatre’s “Galileo” continues through June 23 at the Roda Theatre, 2025 Addison St., Berkeley. Tickets are $32-$200 at (510) 647-2949 or  

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