In the new musical Galileo, which had its world premiere Wednesday night at Berkeley Repertory Theatre, Broadway star Raul Esparza commands the stage as the maverick Seventeenth Century astronomer, in a rock musical that is at turns both audacious and confounding.

Rock musicals are particular beasts, with some like Rent and Spring Awakening celebrated as innovative additions to the canon, and others like Chess and Raisin relegated to novelty status and all but forgotten. No longer seen as particularly envelope-pushing — with pioneering shows like Jesus Christ Superstar now seen as pretty vintage and dated — the rock musical can easily feel kitsch these days.

Jukebox musicals like Mamma Mia!, Jersey Boys, and Jagged Little Pill have added a certain commercialism to the genre. And no modern musical that uses tropes of contemporary popular music can escape the influence of Hamilton, especially if it's an anachronistic period story like Suffs (the suffragette musical currently on Broadway), or Six.

Galileo is no exception to that phenomenon. And while casting the iconoclast Galileo Galilei as a rock-star hero who can belt-shout anthemic pleas to the heavens about the conflicts between scripture and science sounds clever on paper, the resulting show in its current form comes off a bit half-cocked.

As Galileo, multiple Tony nominee Raul Esparza shows off his soaring tenor voice to great effect, and gives a stellar performance as the difficult, brilliant but flawed astronomer. As his daughter, Virginia, who later becomes a nun named Sister Mary Celeste — a consequence of Galileo's own disrepute with the Catholic church — Madalynn Mathews is also excellent. And both roles give the actors ample chances both to sing rock-inflected ballads as well as songs that sound like more traditional, albeit modern musical theater fare. Virginia's Act 2 lament "When Does the Truth Cost Too Much?" is an especially powerful song that had the audience bursting into applause on Wednesday.

The supporting cast includes Javier Muñoz — who famously replaced Lin-Manuel Miranda in Hamilton and also played Usnavi in In the Heights on Broadway — who here is playing the antagonist Cardinal Morosini. And the talented Jeremy Kushnier, who plays Galileo's friend, Bishop Maffeo Barberini who will later be ordained as Pope Urban VIII.

The story of Galileo's rise to public attention, his initial running afoul of the Vatican, and his fraught relationship with his friend Barberini who became pope — and who would ultimately see him jailed for his legendary heresy, teaching about a heliocentric universe — is the stuff of opera, certainly. Translated to the musical theater stage, with occasional humor and the subplot of his daughter's failed engagement and becoming a nun added in, the story is made smaller in a way, and almost less impactful. Galileo is brought down to human scale while simultaneously getting to belt to the rafters about his ordeal — and that feels dissonant, and less than epically tragic.

Madalynn Mathews (Virginia Galilei) and Raúl Esparza (Galileo Galilei) in the world premiere of Galileo: A Rock Musical, performing at Berkeley Repertory Theatre now through June 23, 2024. Photo credit: Kevin Berne

The creative team behind this show is a virtual who's-who of Tony-winning Broadway talent, including director Michael Mayer (Spring Awakening, American Idiot), scenic designer Rachel Hauck (Hadestown, Good Night Oscar, How I Learned to Drive), and lighting designer Kevin Adams (American Idiot, Head Over Heels, Next to Normal).

Musically, Galileo is at times raucous, sumptuous, folk-inflected, and moving. It also veers in unexpected directions, like the gospel-esque Act 2 opener "The Power and the Glory." I suppose a rock musical in which the Catholic church is a central character has to "take it to church" at least once or twice — Act 1's "One True Faith" does this too, to a lesser extent.

The music, lyrics and arrangements were written by relative newcomer Zoe Sarnak (who wrote music for the off-Broadway shows The Lonely Few and Empire Records), and Michael Weiner, who co-wrote the music and lyrics for First Date (which had a brief Broadway run in 2013).

Jeremy Kushnier (Bishop Maffeo Barberini) and Raúl Esparza (Galileo Galilei) in the world premiere of Galileo: A Rock Musical, performing at Berkeley Repertory Theatre now through June 23, 2024. Photo credit: Kevin Berne

The breadth of the songs and diversity of styles leads to a certain muddiness about the score and a dearth of familiar threads to hang on to — a few themes get woven back in, like in the closing number of Act 1, but this is the exception. And while there's hardly a bad song in the bunch — and we're talking about two dozen songs, split almost evenly between the two halves — there isn't one great and memorable one, save for maybe Virginia's 11 o'clock number "When Does the Truth Cost Too Much?" which gets only a short moment in the spotlight.

There are multiple musical themes and moments that conjure Hamilton, but they don't reverberate enough to demand your attention and stick in your head.

Nevertheless it's a show that's built to impress, and in many ways it will. The flashy, LED-framed set combined with the lavish projection design by Jason H. Thompson, which is vital to showing the starry universe that ignites Galileo's passion, are worth the price of admission alone. And I can't say enough about the strength of the cast, down to the last ensemble member.

Galileo could certainly be Broadway bound, and in the interim this bold, beautifully executed show should make waves across the Bay — it was still in previews when Berkeley Rep announced it had already been extended to June 23 due to popular demand. Like any show at this stage, it remains a work in progress, so bear that in mind.

'Galileo' runs through June 23 at Berkeley Rep's Roda Theater. Get tickets here.