A trip across the ocean has begun at the Gerald Schoenfeld Theatre for the five shipwrecked survivors at the center of Lolita Chakrabarti (Red Velvet)'s Life of Pi—sixteen-year-old Pi, a zebra, an orangutan, a hyena, and a 450-pound Royal Bengal tiger. The Broadway bow for the work, which adapts the Man Booker Prize-winning novel by Yann Martel, gave a sneak preview of the show as cast members met with the press March 14. Previews began March 9 for the production which will open March 30.
As the story follows Pi's journey, it also delves into larger philosophical questions says lead actor Hiran Abeysekera, who plays Pi: "I think it's the most extraordinary part I've ever played—a boy who's curious about life and death and God. It's an extraordinary telling of a story about battling one's demons."
When it came to adapting the book, Lolita Chakrabarti explained what attracted her to the idea. "What I loved about it is I wasn't left annoyed by the book thinking, 'What happened?' He didn't tell me what happened. My imagination travelled, and the book held that for the 15 years until I was asked to adapt it."
Chakrabarti developed the script with director Max Webster, who found his own intrigues in adapting the book for the stage. "I thought there was something really exciting about the theatrical challenges," he says. "How do you stage a tiger? How do you stage the audition?"
The puppets were designed by Nick Barnes (Angels in America) and Finn Caldwell, who's designs, along with scenic designer Tim Hatley, won the Olivier for Best Set Design. Check out the evolution of a scene from initial staging, to staging with puppets, to completing with effects in the video above.
The show's animals are brought to life on stage by a team of puppeteers, with three always working together to animate the tiger. Betsy Rosen describes performing as part of the tiger's body as "probably one of the hardest things I've ever done—emotionally, physically, spiritually. There is something to taking on being an animal and having to embody those animal instincts every night." Rosen animates the heart of Richard Parker (the tiger's name). "That process of learning to breathe together, move together, and listen, it's kind of like a piece of music in a way. You're listening so closely to each other, that one little thing gives you a signal to do something else. It's been really special."
Caldwell, who also serves a movement director, shares that he was brought on early to troubleshoot the question of how to even stage the work. After a research and development process, it became obvious the style of puppeteering that was going to be need. "Here's the most important thing: you've got to love it," he said. "It is very physically challenging, like being on a sports team. We expect there to be strain and a certain degree of physical difficulty. People have to have the mental will to go through that and get to the other side to become fitter, stronger, better at this incredibly specific thing that you would never do anywhere else in your life."
Brian Thomas Abraham, who voices Richard Parker, said that he hopes Broadway audiences take away the collaborative, ensemble nature of the show's storytelling, "You're watching 20 actors doing several different things throughout a two and a half hour experience to create the visual stories that people get to see. We're all puppeteering. We're all moving props. We're all presenting images to help support the story of Pi."
Ensemble member Daisuke Tsuji shared, "My brother was outside of the door waiting for me one time and he saw a lady just crying. Out of happiness or sorrow, I don't know, but it will move people for sure."
The cast stars Hiran Abeysekera, Brian Thomas Abraham as Cook/Voice of “Richard Parker,” Rajesh Bose as Father, Avery Glymph as Father Martin/Russian Sailor/Rear Admiral Jackson, Mahira Kakkar as Nurse/Amma/Orange Juice, Kirstin Louie as Lulu Chen, Salma Qarnain as Mrs. Biology Kumar/Zaida Khan, Sathya Sridharan as Mamaji/Pandit-Ji, Daisuke Tsuji as Mr. Okamoto/Captain, and Sonya Venugopal as Rani, along with Davis, Wilderink, Nikki Calonge, Rowan Ian Seamus Magee, Jonathan David Martin, Betsy Rosen, Celia Mei Rubin, and Andrew Wilson as Royal Bengal tiger “Richard Parker.” Rounding out the company in the ensemble are Mahnaz Damania, Jon Hoche, Usman Ali Mughal, Uma Paranjpe, and David Shih Adi Dixit will serve as the Pi alternate.
Director Max Webster (Henry V) leads with production, with a creative team that consists of Tony- and Olivier-winning set and costume designer Tim Hatley, puppet and movement director Finn Caldwell (Angels in America), Olivier-winning video designer Andrzej Goulding (Eureka Day), Olivier-winning lighting designer Tim Lutkin (Back to the Future), and sound designer Carolyn Downing (Les Liaisons Dangereuses). Original music is by Andrew T Mackay (Henry V), and dramaturgy is by Jack Bradley.
The work's West End production took home five 2022 Olivier Awards, including Best Play and Best Supporting Actor, with the latter awarded collectively to the team of puppeteers who play the tiger. The play made its North American premiere ahead of their Broadway bow at American Repertory Theater at Harvard University.
The Broadway run is produced by Simon Friend, Daryl Roth, Hal Luftig, Mark Gordon, Playing Field, Tulchin/Bartner Productions, Gavin Kalin, Hunter Arnold, Hall Smalberg Winkler, 42nd.club, Elizabeth Armstrong, Eilene Davidson, Federman Jenen Productions, Susan Gallin, Independent Presenters Network, John Gore Organization, Kuhn Dodani, Harriet Leve, Mary Lu Roffe, Catherine Schreiber, Anthony Tang, Triple Threat Productions, American Repertory Theatre, and Sheffield Theatres. Aaron Lustbader and Hanna Osmolska serve as executive producers.
For tickets and more information, visit LifeOfPiBway.com.