‘Life of Pi’ Broadway Review: Making Cannibalism Palatable for Kids

Unfortunately, the puppets look like “The Lion King” on a budget

LIFE OF PI broadway review
Hiran Abeysekera, Richard Parker (with Fred Davis, Scarlet Wilderink, Andrew Wilson) in "Life of Pi" on Broadway. (Matthew Murphy and Evan Zimmerman for MurphyMade)

Parents take their children to Broadway musicals, especially those with the name Disney attached, but plays are another matter. Rarely does one come along that’s kiddie friendly. “Life of Pi,” which opened Thursday at the Gerald Schoenfeld Theatre after a long run on London’s West End, is that rarity.

Despite its theme of survival and cannibalism, parents felt comfortable enough with the play to fill a Broadway theater with their children at the Sunday matinee I recently attended. Let’s assume it’s the puppets of animals that have turned Lolita Chakrabarti’s stage adaptation of Yann Martel’s best-selling novel about an Indian boy named Pi trapped on a small boat with a very hungry Bengal tiger into a show the youngsters will enjoy if they’ve already seen “The Lion King” too many times.

The three children sitting behind me at “Life of Pi” only occasionally interrupted their afternoon snack of potato chips to respond to what happens to an Indian family and its zoo when they are shipwrecked on their voyage to Canada. While the Bengal tiger is matched in size by a hyena, an ape and a zebra with a broken leg, it was the smaller critters that brought out squeals of delight from the kids. Especially charming is a little rat that jumps aboard the boat after the ship has sunk and is promptly eaten by the hyena. Only somewhat less gleefully received is the school of glow-in-the-dark fish that helps to distract from the fractured narrative of the second act.

As for the tiger, the hyena, the ape and the zebra with the broken leg, the kids behind me seemed to prefer diving into their Lay’s. (Note to parents: May I suggest Pringles? Its container doesn’t crackle.) To be frank, Nick Barnes and Finn Caldwell’s puppets for “Life of Pi” lack the imagination of Julie Taymor and Michael Curry’s puppets for “The Lion King” and they lack the exaggerated size of the horses designed by the Handspring Puppet Company for “War Horse.” In that latter spectacle, adapted by Nick Stafford from Michael Morpurgo’s novel, it was easy to forget about the puppeteers, because the huge equine structures they were manipulating totally dominated them. The horses weren’t life size. They were T-Rex size.

In Chakrabarti’s pedestrian adaptation, when Pi (Hiran Abeysekera) is trapped on the boat with the hyena, the rat, the ape and the zebra (the tiger is still floating around in the ocean at this point in the story), you don’t worry that the boy might be attacked or eaten by the hyena. You worry that all those puppeteers are going to sink the boat. Some of the animals, all of which are about life size, require up to three humans to manipulate. At one point, the not-very-big-or-scary tiger requires four.

But back to the kids. They made “ick” noises when Pi strangles a sea turtle and drinks its blood, but squealed with approval when the tiger takes a dump on stage. They were, however, six thumbs-down when Pi takes a bite out of one of the tiger’s two turds.

The story with the animals aboard the boat is Pi’s first version of events. He is later pushed to tell another story by an interrogator. Daisuke Tsuji’s performance here is way over the top; he flies into such a rage that Pi could sue for child abuse. This other story has the boy sharing the boat with three human survivors of the shipwreck, one of whom he might have eaten. Max Webster’s efficient direction, Abeysekera’s balletic performance, and Tsuji’s rage work to gloss over the gorier aspects of consuming human flesh, especially for a vegetarian like Pi.

In the end, the kids behind me were all right. This is New York, after all, not Florida.