Broadway’s Life of Pi leaves audiences in a state of wonder. Not only one that is spiritual, philosophical, and intellectual (more on that later), but one that is more practical. One that forces us to question why other producers sell ticket buyers short when it comes to delivering a quality product on Broadway. Admission prices for other shows are just as high and, in many cases, even higher than those set for Life of Pi (★★★★★) and only deliver a fraction of the marvelous spectacle offered by this one.
The story has been kicking around for quite a while and all iterations have been a smashing success. Canadian author Yann Martel’s book was published in 2001 and quickly became a worldwide phenomenon. Director Ang Lee transformed Martel’s story into a film in 2012. It accrued 11 Academy Award nominations and went on to win 4, including Best Adapted Screenplay.
Now, Martel has teamed with actor and playwright Lolita Chakrabarti to bring this compelling and beautiful story to life on the stage. It premiered in June 2019 at England’s Crucible Theatre in Sheffield and later opened at Wyndham’s Theatre in London’s West End in November 2021. Although it took home five Olivier awards, producers and the creative team must have been cautious to bring it to Broadway in haste. At the end of last year, they brought it to Harvard’s American Repertory Theater, where it was received with open arms and high accolades.
Any fears about whether New York audiences would embrace it or not can be allayed. Healthy ticket sales and sold-out performances prove that the Gerald Schoenfeld Theatre should have another long-standing tenant under its roof. (The last show there, Come From Away, ran for six years.)
Pi (Hiran Abeysekera) has endured an unbelievable journey. In an effort to flee political unrest in 1970s India, he and his Pondicherry-based family board a cargo ship bound for Canada. On board, the animals from his family’s zoo: A zebra, an orangutan, a hyena, a rat, and an imposing and deadly Bengal tiger.
As drama would have it, the boat doesn’t arrive at the destination, leaving Pi and his family to fend for themselves in the middle of the ocean. Now, Mr. Okamoto (Daisuke Tsuji), an investigator from the Japanese Ministry of Transport and Canadian embassy representative Lulu Chen (Kirstin Louie) are visiting the young man to glean what happened to the sunken vessel.
Pi begins to recount his story, but first asks Okamoto if he believes in God. “I’ve never been a believer. Religion is a habit rather than a truth. A crutch in times of need,” Okamoto declares. Pi, with wide-eyed optimism, replies, “I will tell you everything Mr Okamoto… because my story will make you believe in God.”
While all of the details of Pi’s recollections may not be accurate, it’s difficult to refute his conviction of faith and belief in a Higher Power. In an earlier scene, his family learns, with great consternation, that Pi has been going to a Muslim Mosque, a Hindu temple, and a Catholic church. “I just want to love God — and they are all next door to each other. You’re asking me to pick the better story. Why do I have to choose? Aren’t they just versions of the same thing?”
This is where the spiritual, philosophical, and intellectual components collide. No matter one’s religious or agnostic leanings, it’s hard to not lean into Pi’s story. Although the entire piece is fiction, it points to the intangible, but deeply felt belief of Divine Intervention in our own lives. It’s a challenge to not be moved by such a spiritual mystery.
On the visual front, there is even more to consume. Scenic and costume designer Tim Hatley, lighting designer Tim Lutkin, and video designer Andrzej Goulding have all created a warm and sumptuous atmosphere. While other Broadway shows short-shrift audiences on scenery or overload them with too much glitz, this trio strikes a Goldilocks balance of “just right.” Whether presenting a busy Indian market with wares and shoppers dressed in brilliant attire or recreating unruly waters and a thunderstorm, this is creative acumen at its highest level.
The pièce de resistance of Life of Pi is puppetry. Puppets are nothing new on Broadway. In Disney’s The Lion King, safari animals were created. War Horse brought audiences to tears through Joey, the main equine. Nearly all of Avenue Q‘s cast was on strings and last fall, an animated cow, Milky White, made its way to Broadway in Into the Woods.
Yet in Life of Pi, it is done so masterfully and artfully, thanks largely in part to puppetry and movement director Finn Caldwell, and 10 other castmates who set motion to the animals. It is one of careful orchestration, nimble movement, and majestic beauty. Watching them move with such agility, one ponders how much time these skilled performers must spend at massage therapy after a hard day’s work.
Director Max Webster and this remarkable cast have struck gold with Life of Pi. Although it may not alter your religious conviction, it will restore your faith that Broadway can continue to be a place where magic and mysticism become reality.
Life of Pi runs at the Gerald Schoenfeld Theatre, 236 West 45th Street in New York City. Tickets are $99 to $195.50. Call 800-447-7400 or visit www.lifeofpibway.com.
These are challenging times for news organizations. And yet it’s crucial we stay active and provide vital resources and information to both our local readers and the world. So won’t you please take a moment and consider supporting Metro Weekly with a membership? For as little as $5 a month, you can help ensure Metro Weekly magazine and MetroWeekly.com remain free, viable resources as we provide the best, most diverse, culturally-resonant LGBTQ coverage in both the D.C. region and around the world. Memberships come with exclusive perks and discounts, your own personal digital delivery of each week’s magazine (and an archive), access to our Member's Lounge when it launches this fall, and exclusive members-only items like Metro Weekly Membership Mugs and Tote Bags! Check out all our membership levels here and please join us today!