Harvey Fierstein, eat your heart out! The super-sized sequined schmattes Edna Turnblad sports in “Hairspray” have got nothing on the ruched chiffon circus tent, with hot-pink feather trim, worn by John Lithgow in “Carnival of the Animals.” This enchanting new ballet for tots of all ages by Christopher Wheeldon offers further evidence — following his intoxicating “Carousel” ballet from the fall — that Wheeldon could be a boon to Broadway, given the right opportunities.
A former New York City Ballet dancer and currently the company’s resident choreographer, Wheeldon is arguably the brightest light in the ballet world at the moment, with commissions from several major companies including the Bolshoi. In addition to his acclaimed neoclassical ballets set to the daunting music of Gyorgy Ligeti, Wheeldon has created more populist pieces that reveal his savvy theatrical gifts: a charming backstage comedy for NYCB that played like “42nd Street” in tutus and tights, for example.
Wheeldon’s Broadway debut, unfortunately, was the ill-fated “Sweet Smell of Success,” but the failure of that show has had an unexpected denouement in this far happier collaboration between Wheeldon and the show’s Tony-winning star, Lithgow. The actor, who has written several children’s books, has devised a dozen or so stanzas of witty rhymed verse to accompany the dancing. Lithgow himself narrates, and also dances — nimbly — in that gray chiffon number, impersonating a female elephant in one of the ballet’s most delightful sequences.
In fact, “Carnival,” danced to the familiar suite of music by Camille Saint-Saens, plays like a pop-up book that has magically sprung to life. It tells the story of a naughty child, Oliver Pendleton Percy III, played with springy exuberance by red-headed P.J. Verhoest, who secretes himself under a bench in the Natural History Museum one night. As he sleeps the animals invade his dreams, taking the form of people from his life — his schoolmaster becomes a lion, his schoolmates grow rats’ tails, their parents become squawking chickens.
Thoroughly inspired costumes by Jon Morrell enhance the charm of Wheeldon’s choreography, which embellishes surprisingly pure classicism (the women dance mostly en pointe) with comic touches that hilariously evoke the movements of the fauna in question. It’s hard to single out highlights, but certainly Lithgow, playing the school nurse as a daintily prancing pachyderm — with bright pink cheeks, a pile of pillows stuffed somewhere under all that chiffon, and outrageously padded legs replete with ribbons and ballet slippers — stands out in the memory.
A quartet of beefy jackasses cast as the wrestling team (their leather helmets sporting long floppy ears) are cheered by a flock of pom-pom wielding cheerleaders. The skittish school librarian is a kangaroo (Yvonne Borree hopping on toe) who dreams her way into mermaid-hood, her springy movements turning sinuous and smooth. Sometimes the dancers evoke their animal characters with just a movement or two — a pair of girls in cloche hats slowly poking their heads out from behind umbrellas painted to resemble tortoise shells.
The invention rarely flags, but inevitably the ballet has an episodic, stop-and-start quality that detracts somewhat from its cumulative impact as a piece of dance. The verses are delivered essentially in between the dancing segments, and the complex production features several different backdrops, lit with her customary magic by Natasha Katz. It would be nice if the seams could somehow be stitched together more smoothly — and certainly a more intimate stage would be preferable, too, for a ballet that exploits so charmingly small details of characterization.
But the ballet could easily turn into a perennial matinee favorite for the company. (It is scheduled for just three more performances this season.) And balletomanes will want to make return visits to drink in the nuances of two segments in particular. The first is the uncommonly moving sequence in which Percy imagines his parents (as cuckoos) waiting dolefully for him at the kitchen table. As they dance a mournful pas de deux, Percy jumps up and down, desperately trying to capture their attention. The dance beautifully illustrates Wheeldon’s ability to invest the smallest of gestures and phrases with deep feeling. (It helps to have a dancer of Kyra Nichols’ extraordinary expressive abilities.)
And, just before the jolly finale, former NYCB star Christine Redpath performs a simple but touching solo to the music famously used for Fokine’s “Dying Swan.” She plays Percy’s Great Aunt Cecile, a former ballerina caught up in a dream of her glory days. With just a few tender flutterings of her white-gloved arms, she eloquently characterizes a woman who still takes pleasure in expressive movement but is wise enough to ease her way into old age with dignity and grace, and maybe an inward tear or two.