‘Galileo: A Rock Musical’ Review: Grafting ’80s-Style Power Ballads onto the Story of a Renaissance Visionary Yields Assertive but Awkward Results

With science denialism and theocratic politics both on the rise, it’s an opportune moment to revisit the life of Galileo Galilei, whose discoveries about the cosmos four centuries ago were considered a threat to the authority of the Catholic Church. But there are probably better ways to broach the subject than “Galileo: A Rock Musical,” an odd mixture of earnestness, flash and snark made odder by a score that trades in bombastic power-ballad sounds reminiscent of Jefferson Starship, Styx and Jim Steinman.

Michael Mayer’s world premiere production at Berkeley Rep (where he also launched “American Idiot” fifteen years ago) has its strengths, not least the vocal prowess of a cast led by Raul Esparza. Still, it’s hard to imagine an easy road ahead for a show whose theme is fairly rarefied by musical-theater standards, yet whose sometimes hokey, simplistic tenor is unlikely to generate the critical support needed to lure in more mainstream audiences.

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Mark Wing-Davey staged a fine revival of Brecht’s “Life of Galileo” at this same institution a quarter century ago. But Danny Strong’s book is not an adaptation of that or any other specific source, coming up with its own variation on known history to support a vision of the mathematician, inventor and astronomer as a fist-pumping 17th-century rebel yeller for progress.

Introduced at his desk exalting that he will “Map the Sky,” Esparza’s title figure is all stadium-act frontman swagger, cocky and preening. His relationship with daughter Virginia (Madalynn Mathews) is largely an intellectually sparring one, as he’s steeped her in his own fields of expertise. But this is a source of some frustration, as a woman cannot enter his professions, while her hopes of marriage to adoring neighbor Alessandro (Christian Magby) may founder on the scandalous rocks of her father’s controversial theories. The latter are denounced by leading clergy, notably Cardinal Morosini (Javier Munoz) and Bishop Grasso (Bradley Dean), who consider any challenge to Biblical wisdom an “attack on Scripture.”

He does have an ally in Bishop Barbarini (Jeremy Kushnier), whose rise up the Vatican ladder also bodes well for his own career. Yet Galileo’s heedlessness constantly threatens that support, first when he defies orders to teach Copernicus (who realized the Earth revolved around the sun, rather than vice versa), then in writing a dialogue between old and new views that ridicules church orthodoxy.

Inventing a telescope that lets anyone see hitherto unknown, wondrous details on the moon and beyond (“Heaven’s Changing”), Galileo excites Europe’s imagination (“Whispers”). But even this is regarded as heretical in some quarters: It is feared that in giving the public insights that contradict traditional church teachings, the scientist might inadvertently benefit Protestants, against whom Catholics are waging war in the north.

As Barbarini puts it upon becoming Pope, “Power decides truth, not the other way around.” He must ultimately denounce his own beliefs so that he (and Galileo and his daughter) might survive, inspirational uplift provided by a parting “The Truth Will Follow Us” with the ensemble now in modern dress, and the generic Broadway sentiment that we should “never stop dreaming.”

There are some attractive choral effects in Michael Weiner and Zoe Sarnak’s score, with a strong voice cast ably supported by Robert Sinha’s eight pit musicians. Act Two brings more diversity of musical approach, including a moderately funky, vaudevillian “Two Sides,” and the pop-gospel “The Power and the Glory,” which makes the most use of David Neumann’s choreography in an evening light on dance. The second half also gets more mileage from Rachel Hauck’s two-level, LED-outlined set, standing in for columned halls of both academia and church — in the first, the upper section is given over exclusively to Jason H. Thompson and Kaitlyn Pietras’s projections.

That duo’s stimulating array of religious, scientific and celestial imagery is, however, arguably the show’s best element, as well as the only one that conveys the ideas at hand without jokey or sentimental pandering.

Otherwise, book and lyrics alike are often hamfisted, whether going for snippy quips or trying to make us feel emotional depths these cardboard characters can’t approach. The central relationships are off: A stereotypically feisty, ahead-of-her-time Virginia swerves between urging her father to defend science and the opposite, their parent-child bond failing to convince as a result. When Barberini sings an acoustic ode (“By Your Light I See”) to his friend’s mind-expanding influence, it plays like a closet love song, something that should have been given clarifying emphasis or none at all.

Both Esparza and Mathews rise to the demanded vocal pyrotechnics. But their showstopping moments are in service to songs that feel like throwbacks to the MOR radio rock of forty years ago or more—artificially inflated, grandiose incitements to Bic-lighting. They’ve got some notably clumsy lyrical hooks, like the young lovers’ insistence that their hearts beat “Louder, Louder,” or the ensemble’s repeated chanting of the word “faith.”

The conception of Galileo himself as Renaissance cock-rocker, endlessly pleased with himself — he seems dressed for tomcatting in Anita Yavich’s costumes — might’ve worked in the hands of a performer and show more humorously self-aware. But Esparza’s committed turn doesn’t lend that narcissism much saving irony. And despite scattered one-liners, “Galileo” at present feels all too sincere in treating a celebrated historical standoff as the kind of slick, shallow, glorified concert that would make better sense if performed by the likes of Meat Loaf and Bonnie Tyler.

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