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‘Life of Pi’ cast shares the ‘magic’ of the production’s puppetry

"Life of Pi" has arrived on Broadway. Lolita Chakrabarti's theatrical retelling of Yann Martel's novel opened on March 30 at the Schoenfeld Theatre.

Hiran Abeysekera as Pi and puppeteers Fred Davis, Scarlet Wilderink and Andrew Wilson as Richard Parker in 'Life of Pi' (Photo: Matthew Murphy and Evan Zimmerman for MurphyMade)

“Life of Pi” has arrived on Broadway. Lolita Chakrabarti’s theatrical retelling of Yann Martel’s novel opened on March 30 at the Schoenfeld Theatre.

The play unfolds when a cargo ship sinks in the Pacific Ocean and its lone human survivor, Pi, finds himself stranded on a lifeboat with a hyena, a zebra, an orangutan and a Royal Bengal tiger named Richard Parker. The tiger is brought to life each night by a team of onstage puppeteers, under the puppet and movement direction of Finn Caldwell. The production features puppet design by Caldwell and Nick Barnes.

In the latest episode of “The Broadway Show with Tamsen Fadal,” viewers hear from cast members on opening night as they reflect on the role puppetry plays in elevating the emotions of the story.

Hiran Abeysekera, who is reprising his Olivier-winning performance as Pi, shared his excitement over bringing the production to the Main Stem.

“The visuals are amazing. The music is extraordinary,” he said. “People are gonna come to see a show and then they’re suddenly gonna be like, ‘Woah, I feel like I’ve been to church almost.’”

That emotional impact, both from the overall production and the art of the puppetry, was echoed by several of Abeysekera’s castmates.

“People are gonna come to this show thinking that they know what a tiger onstage is gonna look like, and how they’re gonna feel about that tiger,” said Sathya Sridharan, who appears in the show as Mamaji/Pandit-Ji. “Then when they leave weeping because of Richard Parker, that, I think, is what’s gonna [stay]: the emotional connection they’re gonna feel to these puppets, and to the story — but these puppets in particular.”

Brian Thomas Abraham, who plays the roles of Cook and the voice of Richard Parker, agreed. “It’ll blow you away every night,” he said.

Richard Parker isn’t the only puppet to take center stage. In fact, there are several animals that are enlivened by a team of puppeteers, all of whom affect the plot — and the audience.

“There’s these little foreshadowing moments that happen early in the play about the orangutan or the hyena or the zebra,” said Rowan Ian Seamus Magee, one of the puppeteers who brings Richard Parker to life. “Depending on how much those puppets connect with the audience early on, those characters connect with the audience, these different sounds come out of the audience later on when dramatic stuff happens, when conflict occurs, and we realize that each little whinny, and each little relationship that they have, even just with animal sounds, results in this big booming sound later in the audience.”

“There’s an extra layer of magic when you bring an object to life through breath,” said fellow puppeteer Betsy Rosen. “This show really brings it to the forefront because you see all the animals living and breathing. I’m just excited for everyone to see the magic that is puppetry.”

Abeysekera sang the praises of his puppet-wielding castmates. “I see them as musicians, all the puppeteers, because none of them are trying to play better than the other person,” he said. “They’re all doing what they need to so that the piece of music could be heard. So it’s that music I dance with.”

In this week’s episode of “The Broadway Show,” viewers also hear from Tony-winning actor Billy Porter, who talks to Paul Wontorek about his upcoming Black Mona Lisa Tour. Fadal chats with Lorna Courtney, star of “& Juliet,” about her journey from LaGuardia High School to the title role in a new Broadway musical. Charlie Cooper walks and talks with Alli Mauzey, currently featured in “Kimberly Akimbo.” And Perry Sook speaks with “Phantom” clarinetist Matthew Goodman — who has been with the Broadway production since it opened in 1988 — ahead of the show’s final performance on April 16.