“The Wolves in the Walls” lives up to a classy pedigree: In 2005, the ever-resourceful Improbable company brought eccentric musicians the Tiger Lillies to Off Broadway with a stage version of the scary children’s stories in “Shockheaded Peter.” Now, Improbable artistic director Julian Crouch follows the same tot-terrorizing impulse with a thrilling, frequently beautiful stage adaptation of Neil Gaiman and Dave McKean’s merrily creepy picture book.
“I don’t like it — it’s too quiet,” shudders Lucy (Helen Mallon) as she waits in bed for the wolves to come out of the walls. Lucy has perhaps overstated the case: The kid-centric New Victory Theater is never too quiet, with exclamations from the audience of “What’s that?” and “I don’t like him” punctuating the atmosphere. There’s a room full of young theater critics ready to show their displeasure with anything that looks condescending or contrived, but it’s a testament to the success of “Wolves” that the show’s most engaging moments are actually, briefly, underscored by a not-quite-total silence.
Lucy lives with her tuba-playing Dad (George Drennan), jam-making Mum (Anita Vettesse) and videogaming brother (Paul James Corrigan). She draws and plays with her pig puppet. Late at night, though, Lucy hears wolves wandering through the walls. Mice, rats and bats are her mother’s, father’s and brother’s respective explanations. Besides, everyone tells her, when the wolves come out of the walls, it’s all over.
Unfortunately, in the middle of the show, the wolves do come out of the walls and into the main house, where they wreak havoc.
This trauma isn’t as menacing as the events of “Shockheaded Peter,” because the wolves are not so much cruel as inexperienced with the human world. Witness, for example, the wolf that dances with the vacuum cleaner.
The various wolf puppets — which start off as shadows and glowing eyes before they eventually burst from the walls — are genuinely scary, with mangy fur, gaping mouths and, for the full-body version, a strange hump-backed design that frees up one of the puppeteer’s hands and makes the wolf supernaturally tall.
The actors are all deeply committed to the same level of overplay (an absolute necessity in front of kids) and are physically proficient. It would be possible to produce a perfectly fine show that gets interesting only when the wolves emerge, but “Wolves” sustains amusement, even fascination, from its early moments.
An initial scene with Corrigan features a very funny air-guitar routine; Drennan uses the wind from his tuba to buoy a wooden chair high above the stage. The parlor magic never quite subsides; something is always floating or vanishing and, even if the method is obvious, it still manages to delight.
As an adaptation, “The Wolves in the Walls” does a startlingly accurate job of translating McKean’s lovely pictures to the stage with the style intact. It’s quite a feat: The book is mostly scratchy drawings over colorful collage, but Crouch has designed a multiple-scrim system with unobtrusive video projections to precisely simulate the feel of the printed images.
Nick Powell’s reedy music is more of an undercurrent that occasionally bursts into lyrics (some of them written by Gaiman) than a traditional multinumber score but is no less fun or hummable for its strangeness.
The entire bizarre contraption, in fact, tumbles happily along right to the curtain call, when the children in the front row can be counted on to peer warily into the orchestra pit. From a few rows back, this looked like a complimentary impulse — as if they, too, wanted to congratulate those responsible for this gleeful, irregular confection.