NEW YORK — It would be completely understandable if the crackerjack technology team working on “Life of Pi” included a zoologist. Much of the enjoyment of this stage version of the popular 2001 novel that became a popular 2012 movie derives from the enchanting animal puppets that lope, float and scurry onto the stage of the Gerald Schoenfeld Theatre.
Eight puppeteers alone are credited as operators of Richard Parker, the Bengal tiger sharing a lifeboat with Pi, played by heroically energetic Hiran Abeysekera. Richard deserves above-the-title billing as much as Abeysekera would in the London-born production that marked its opening Thursday night. He’s the most expressive cat to make his Broadway debut since, well, “Cats.”
The old show-business saw about leaving the theater humming the scenery certainly applies to “Life of Pi,” which owes much to the puppet designs of Nick Barnes and Finn Caldwell and the ingenious sets of Tim Hatley (who also created the costumes). It’s a pop-up book of a play, with a boat that actually does pop up out of the stage floor. As such, the production is more striking than stimulating.
Your little ones might not catch the spiritual drift of Lolita Chakrabarti’s workmanlike script, but they’ll delight in the Ark’s worth of Day-Glo fish, diaphanous birds and lifelike quadrupeds. But some adults might grow a bit impatient with the leisurely pace at which events unfold — though the play’s structure is an upgrade on Ang Lee’s movie, which employed the hackneyed device of a grown-up Pi relating his tale of shipwreck and survival to a writer. Chakrabarti focuses more fully on the inquiry into the ship disaster by Daisuke Tsuji’s Mr. Okamoto, as Pi recovers in a hospital.
We know from the start that Pi lives through his ordeal, and only toward the very end does “Life of Pi” introduce the possibility of alternative explanations for what happened at sea. Like the book and film, the play seeks as much to be a meditation on faith as it is about an oceangoing story of endurance. In the ingenious staging by director Max Webster, Pi’s struggle to survive entails conversations not with a supernatural being but with imagined companions: teachers, relatives and the embodiment of the military handbook (Avery Glymph) who clues Pi in on how to stay alive.
Abeysekera is an engaging Pi, but he might as well be a human participant in a theme park ride; though we marvel at the design know-how, which extends to the videos by Andrzej Goulding and lighting by Tim Lutkin, the experience is more of an imagistic journey than an emotional one. You will, of course, be beguiled by the teamwork of puppeteers who accomplish the mission of seeming to make Richard Parker breathe and seethe. A treat for the eyes it all is, if that is all you’re really looking for.
Life of Pi, adapted by Lolita Chakrabarti from the novel by Yann Martel. Directed by Max Webster. Sets and costumes, Tim Hatley; puppet design, Nick Barnes and Finn Caldwell; video and animation, Andrzej Goulding; lighting, Tim Lutkin; sound, Carolyn Downing; music, Andrew T. Mackay. With Adi Dixit, Brian Thomas Abraham, Rajesh Bose, Salma Qarnain, Sathya Sridharan, Sonya Venugopal. About 2½ hours. At Gerald Schoenfeld Theatre, 236 W. 45th St., New York. lifeofpibway.com.