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Sunday, June 16, 2024

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PerformanceStage Review'Galileo': Strangely familiar music of the spheres

‘Galileo’: Strangely familiar music of the spheres

Script is sharp, cast is good, and music is catchy, yet rock musical at Berkeley Rep just misses cosmic harmony.

It just so happens that opening night for this show fell on 2024’s Graduation Day at UC Berkeley. With Cal is just steps away from the Berkeley Rep, it’s quite possible that the latter picked the date intentionally. Indeed, the curtain speech featured AD Johanna Pfaelzer acknowledging the “big thinkers” who spent the day in caps and gowns. What she didn’t mention was the student protest encampment that was taken down the day before after almost a month; nor did she mention the brutal War on Gaza that instigated said encampment. When it’s the opening night of a show about a rationalist going up against murderous world super-power, that lack of acknowledgment isn’t just egregious, it borders on the very censorship this show criticizes.

There are many times during the three-hour length of Galileo: A Rock Musical (world premiere through June 23rd at Berkeley Rep) when one wonders “Where have I seen this before?” There were folks in the lobby during the pre-show who had apparently already seen it during previews and/or workshops, but that’s not what I mean. I’m talking about the way I (and others around me) noticed similarities between this musical and the ubiquitous Hamilton. When you want to make a musical about The Lone Man who went up against The System, you’ll find that Lin-Manuel Miranda’s hip-hop Broadway smash casts quite a long shadow.

Even without that chip on the shoulder, the story of The Great Innovator is well-worn territory to which the play hews closely. In an (unintentionally?) hilarious moment, Galileo (Raúl Esparza) uses his homemade telescope for the first time. No sooner has he placed it to his eye when the lighting and chorus react with a flourish just shy of Handel’s “Hallelujah” chorus. He witnessed the stars and so did we, apparently.

In fairness, Galileo isn’t all overwrought moments hitting us over the head with its perceived importance. In fact, screenwriter-turned-playwright Danny Strong’s book is probably the single best script he’s ever written. It’s an intimate story about complex characters who all believe God directed them toward empirical truths, yet they clash with one another due to their affiliation (or lack thereof) with the world’s premiere religious organization. Strong’s script is for a great play; it just shouldn’t have been a musical.

Javier Muñoz as Cardinal Morosini in ‘Galileo.’ Photo by Kevin Berne

We start with a mercifully non-graphic scene of Catholic cardinals sentencing a heretic to death for being an atheist. In the aftermath, the pious Galileo reluctantly, but definitively, defends the brutal act to the very Cardinal Morosini (Javier Muñoz) who ordered it. Morosini takes no pleasure in having failed to convert one of God’s children, and Galileo is clearly trying to convince himself of the act’s “necessity” more than anyone else. After all, Galileo can’t exactly let murderous zealots know that he sees the sound science behind Copernicus’ assertation that the Earth is not the universe’s center.

Inspired by his headstrong and equally scientific daughter Virginia (Madalynn Mathews) and supportive friend Bishop Barberini (Jeremy Kushnier), Galileo eventually publishes his Copernicus-supporting treatise Sidereus Nuncius (Starry Messenger). Yet, it’ll be the follow-up, Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems, that will threaten Viriginia’s prospective marriage, cast doubt upon Barberini’s religious fidelity, and put Galileo’s very life in danger.

When I say that this shouldn’t have been a musical, I don’t mean that the songs are bad. Quite the contrary: the songs by Broadway veterans Michael Weiner and Zoe Sarnak are always entertaining, if a bit paint-by-numbers. No, what I mean is that the songs fall into the habit of stopping the action cold; only a handful actively advance the story or tell us something we didn’t already know. Had it been a straightforward prose play, it would have been a gold star on Strong’s record. The songs, entertaining though they may be, muddle that. What’s more, director Michael Mayer likes having characters stay in place for “solo” songs that clearly have an audible chorus. Mayer mostly gets good performances from his cast (particularly Matthews), but these scenes feel as if he was intent to do the opposite of what the song needed at times. (A single scene in modern dress was just head-scratching.)

Christian Magby and Madalynn Mathews in ‘Galileo.’ Photo by Kevin Berne

The Rep being the Rep, the real stars are the tech team. Set designer Rachel Hauck’s Roman-inspired set features upstage stone walls coupled by pillars of transparent glass, giving an oddly futuristic look to the scene that’s a bit hypnotic. The upstage wall is home to Jason H. Thompson and Kaitlyn Pietras’ eye-catching projections, whilst Kevin Adams maneuvers the lights with the skill of a conductor – appropriate for a musical.

As always, I went into the Rep knowing I’d be one of the few masked. This night was no different, though I’d like to think I saw more masks than I did the last time I was there. My Aranet4’s CO² readings hovered around 800ppm most of the show, peaking at 934ppm during intermission (when everyone in the audience flapped their gums) and touching 904ppm at the final bow.

Galileo: A Rock Musical is the dramatic apotheosis of a man who’s told that his finding contradict the Word of God. It’s a play full of wonderfully complex characters trying to resolve their blind faith with what they see through their own eyes. The musical element is entertaining and will probably make the show as beloved as other Berkeley Rep premieres (including my all-time favorite show, Passing Strange), but the songs have no real place in dramatic structure of the play proper. I left the show already willing to buy the soundtrack, but one doesn’t need a telescope to see that the show would have been stronger if the songs had never appeared.

GALILEO: A ROCK MUSICAL’s world premiere runs through June 23 at the Roda Theatre of the Berkeley Rep. Tickets and further info here.

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Charles Lewis III
Charles Lewis III
Charles Lewis III is a San Francisco-born journalist, theatre artist, and arts critic. You can find dodgy evidence of this at thethinkingmansidiot.wordpress.com

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