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Beyond the Sea: “Life of Pi” reviewed

Life of Pi, the Olivier Award-winning spectacle adaptation has just opened on Broadway, confirming a much more seamless transcontinental journey than the material from which it is based.

Adapted from the bestselling novel by Yann Martel, Life of Pi tells the story of Pi “Piscine” Patel, the teenage son of a zookeeper from India whose life takes a tragic turn at sea when his family leaves home for a better life in Canada. Lolita Chakrabarti’s adaptation opens the play where Maetel’s novel ended, with Pi being interviewed in a Mexican hotel room by a Japanese official from the cargo ship company responsible for the vessel Pi’s family was on.

From there, Pi narrates his story out surviving a harrowing ordeal for 227 days at sea with little food and on which he had to share a small lifeboat with a Bengal tiger named Richard Parker (it’s explained in the show). And there’s enough potential in simply reciting this story of survival on its own, but the show’s raison d’etre is the design element that director Max Webster has assembled. Pi, itself also a film with Oscar-winning direction and special effects, (though those were computer-generated), follows in the footsteps of forbears like War Horse and puts its best stagecraft foot first. Tim Hatley’s sets and costumes, Andrzej Goulding’s video and animation, Tim Lutkin’s lighting and Carolyn Downing’s sound design are all top-notch, and the puppetry design by Nick Barnes and Finn Caldwell is uber-convincing, embodying, among others, the motions of a zebra, hyena, orangutan, and, of course, the tiger.

Credit must also be given to Hiran Abeysekera, who balances out the human element of Pi, bringing the story back home with its questions about faith, comparative religion, and even the reliability of storytelling. In a show full of showstoppers, Abeysekera is the one who keeps everything going. A technical triumph in every way, Life of Pi is indeed a grand spectacle – but it’s also life-affirming entertainment.