Jeremy Kushner and Raul Esparza. Photo: Kevin Berne.

Toba Singer’s take on “Galileo”

a new Rock Opera at Berkeley Rep

Written by:
Toba Singer
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Actor Nathan Lane, in a Tony Award acceptance speech, points out that successful musical comedy, when its allied arts and artists come together, is a rare and glorious thing. 


My sentiments exactly. 

What he didn’t say is that the opposite is true of Rock Opera: when all of its elements join together, the result is pandemonium. For me, “Jesus Christ Superstar,” the love child of Andrew Lloyd Weber and The Virgin Mary, drove the point home when I saw it several decades ago. The same can be said of “Galileo, a Rock Opera.” It amounts to a Cliff Notes intro to Galileo Galilei’s struggle to advance a materialist understanding of the workings of the heavens in the face of liturgical blowback from the Catholic Church. It was in no ways “rare,” not even medium rare. It was the opposite of rare. It was common. With the advent of “Jesus Christ Super Star,” Rock Opera began its colonizing of Broadway, as season by season and theater by theater, musicians began to vanish from orchestra pits in multiples, until there were none. Choreographers gone wild, tossed character shoes and mesh tights out of costume shops, outfitting dancers in sneakers and line-sabotaging sweats. In Galileo, the orchestration that flatters spectral canned music leaves us guessing just who or what is doing the actual singing. If we were seated too far back to see their mics, it would be easy to imagine that perfectly capable triple-threat performers had been mowed under by their accompaniment, limited to pulling agonized facial expressions that originated in surgical not musical theater.

I talked myself into giving Rock Opera one more chance for the sake of Science. What could be more enobling, after all, than a script that recounts the martyrdom by an albeit self-centered Galileo to celestial equations and earthly logic. He invented the telescope in 1608, but his effort to share Copernicus’ findings that the earth revolves around the sun was met with resistance from the Catholic church heirarchy, and Galileo’s erstwhile ally, Bishop Maffeo Barbarini (Jeremy Kushnier) who, once anointed Pope Urban, chose the power and glory of officiating as God’s representative on earth, over defending Galileo’s dogged pursuit of celestial mathematical proofs. The melodrama knew no bounds. This production burdened Galileo with more than one cross to bear. Even mask wearing to protect against RSV could not ward off the strong whiff of hubris emanating from the Program Notes in its suggestion that “Galileo, a Rock Opera,” strikes a tremulous chord that augurs against re-electing Donald Trump to the Presidency.

Only in Rock Opera can you try to get away with composing a song that has only one lyric, in this case, the word “Louder,” repeated over and over for what feels like eight minutes of a not-much-growing louder crescendo, while this audience member squirmed. (Others were transported.) If I were teaching an acting course, I would feature “Louder” as a textbook example of the theatrical crime of “indication,” to be avoided at all costs. What “Louder” signals here, besides increasing volume, is a lamentable deficit of poetic imagination.

Reformation Age-appropriate costumes by Anita Yavich, lush in their drape, are the production’s one and only design asset. Sets by Rachel Hauck conform to the Rock Opera brand, where anything beautifully conceived is rendered less so, or just as tawdry as the cheap neon-light tubing stuck on to frame it. It’s the equivalent of biting into a potato sandwich. Potatoes can be stand-alone delicious, as can home-baked bread. Slapped together, however, they can result in a dither of gustatory paralysis.

The actors are talented, but it is challenging to pinpoint exactly in what ways, because whether speaking or singing, they mostly shout at each other, with nary a nod toward textural relief. It’s like an entire cast of Peter O’Tooles in “Lion in Winter” on Red Bull. I dread the day when Rock Opera casts roles with AI robots because everything that Nathan Lane now lauds will then be supplanted by crescendoing techno-teletubbies in sneakers, serially yelling for two and a half hours. Moreover, pre-curtain electioneering notwithstanding, Trump or Biden will be elected president in November, sporting that self-same shroud of power and glory in which Ozymandias once self-flatteringly luxuriated.

Toba Singer

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