Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: San Francisco/North Bay

Berkeley Repertory Theatre

Also see Patrick's reviews of Torch Song and The Glass Menagerie

Raúl Esparza and Cast
Photo by Kevin Berne
Theatre fans in the Bay Area are incredibly lucky to live where we do. Not only do we have at least 200 theatre companies (including four–American Conservatory Theatre, San Francisco Mime Troupe, Berkeley Repertory Theatre and TheatreWorks Silicon Valley–that have won the Regional Theatre Tony Award), producers deem the audiences here to be such sophisticated, avid theatergoers that we occasionally get to be the first to see productions that might end up on the Great White Way. We were the first in the world to see the full productions of Wicked, American Idiot and Swept Away. The first two went on to be hits on Broadway, and Swept Away may still find its way to New York. Mamma Mia! had its U.S. premiere at Broadway SF's Orpheum Theatre.

Now we have another chance to see a show that may very well find its way to Broadway, for director Michael Mayer (who also helmed American Idiot and Swept Away) leads the creative team behind a new rock musical about the life of Italian mathematician, astronomer, and inventor Galileo Galilei, entitled simply Galileo.

Spectacularly staged in its world premiere in Berkeley Rep's Roda Theatre, the story of one of the world's greatest minds, thwarted by the Catholic Church yet still managing to engage in some of history's most important scientific inquiries, is set to a thrilling rock score by Michael Weiner and Zoe Sarnak.

As the show opens, with an illustration of the Earth-centric view of the universe projected on a scrim, we hear the sound of chimes or bells followed by chanting, reinforcing the ubiquity of the Church in the lives of the characters who will populate the stage. We then see the inquisition of scientist Bruno Giordano (Adam Halpin), who refuses to recant his belief that Christ was not divine, Mary was not a virgin, and that transubstantiation (the miraculous transformation of the communion host and wine into the actual body and blood of Christ) was not really a thing. Giordano was burned alive for this heresy, and the scene helps establish the stakes for Galileo (Broadway veteran Raúl Esparza), whose observations had led him to believe in the veracity of the Copernican, heliocentric model of the universe, which contradicted the established Aristotelian/Ptolemaic theory that placed the Earth at the center of the universe, an unmoving orb around which the planets, the sun and all the other stars orbited. A view, importantly, also held by the Church, who charged anyone who suggested otherwise with heresy.

Fortunately for Galileo, he has an ally in the Church–Bishop Matteo Barberini (a brilliant Jeremy Kushnier), who will soon rise to the rank of cardinal and then become Pope Urban VIII. Also standing by Galileo's side is his daughter, Virginia (Madalynn Mathews), in love with Alessandro Tarantola (Christian Magby) but unable to marry due to her being illegitimate and Galileo lacking the funds for a dowry that would overcome the challenge of her out-of-wedlock birth.

Despite a running time of about 2.5 hours, the show rockets along, thanks to Mayer's skilled direction, a compelling score, and a story of the enmity between science and religion that persists to this day, making this story of 17th century characters as timely as ever.

As Galileo, Raúl Esparza is nothing short of staggering. His voice, already wondrous when I first saw him perform live in Sondheim's Company in New York as Bobby, has somehow expanded in power and precision. It cuts through the Roda Theatre just as Galileo's truths sliced through the hypocrisies of the Church and its leaders. Although Galileo was deeply committed to his Catholic faith, he was just as committed to the hope his work could "create a true partnership between science and religion." A lovely idea, but one that his ally, Pope Urban VIII ultimately dismisses, saying "in science, facts are constantly changing, while scripture is constant," conveniently ignoring one of the key aspects of the scientific method: the willingness to adapt to new ideas as the method reveals them. Or, as Galileo says, "a new idea can act as a shining star to guide us."

Esparza is well-supported by the rest of the cast. He and Jeremy Kushnier, who plays the bishop who becomes pope, have a delightful chemistry, and Kushnier's voice blends gorgeously with Esparza's tenor. Esparza also pairs well with Madalynn Mathews, their work showing a tenderness combined with authority that often marks a father-daughter relationship.

Every aspect of this production is spot-on. The set, by Rachel Hauck, is appropriately massive, even forbidding, and the projections created by Jason H. Thompson and Kaitlyn Pietras show us not only a starry sky, but animate notebooks filled with drawings and calculations made by Galileo. The band is tight, precise, and rocks the room. Sound design by John Shivers is nothing short of perfection: every word can be heard clearly, and though the performers are mic'd, it still manages to feel as if we are standing next to the cast as they sing their hearts out.

Sadly, in our current political environment, truth doesn't seem to carry the same weight it once did. But here's one true thing: if you skip this production of Galileo, you will miss something compelling, powerful, even magical. Or you can wait until it transfers to New York. But why? See it now, save the airfare, and you can say you saw it when.

Galileo runs through June 23, 2024, at Berkeley Repertory Theatre, Roda Theatre, 2015 Addison Street, Berkeley CA. Shows are Tuesdays and Wednesdays at 7:00pm; Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays at 8:00pm. Matinees are Saturdays and Sundays at 2:00pm. There are additional matinees on May 23 and June 13 at 1:00pm. Tickets range from $22.50-$145. For tickets and information, please visit, or call the box office at 510-647-2949.