In December, Pennsylvania Ballet debuted its splendidly refurbished

Nutcracker

. Six months later, it has staged the local premiere of another ballet that, while much shorter than the holiday classic, is equally whimsical.

The delightfully witty

Carnival of the Animals

, first performed Friday night at the Academy of Music, was choreographed by Christopher Wheeldon (who choreographed

Swan Lake

for the Pennsylvania Ballet in 2004) and set to a story written by actor John Lithgow. Lithgow appeared on stage to narrate the first three performances.

First danced by New York City Ballet in 2003, while Wheeldon was artist in residence there,

Carnival

of the Animals

is set to Camille Saint-Saens' music of the same name. It tells the story of young Oliver Percy (the charming Peter Weil, who alternates with Austin Butler), a boy who inadvertently spends the night in New York City's Museum of Natural History, where his imagination gets the best of him.

While

Nutcracker

is a dream of toys and candy brought to life, in

Carnival

it is the animal denizens of the museum's dioramas that "become" Oliver's friends, relatives and classmates.

Nutcracker

has the Sugar Plum Fairy, flowers and snowflakes. In

Carnival

, it's a beautiful mermaid, danced by Amy Aldridge - who doubles as the formal yet bouncy school librarian/kangaroo - and her mer-corps de ballet.

Carnival

even has Mabel Buntz, a Mother Ginger-like character - in this case, John Lithgow in a dress in the hilarious "Elephant Waltz." (Actor Paul Hope of Houston's Alley Theatre replaces Lithgow for the remainder of the run.)

Other highlights included two ancient turtles (Alyson Pray and Gabriella Yudenich) dancing the cancan; a quartet of tropical birds/cheerleaders; the baboon, danced by Alexander Iziliaev; and the fossil ballet, complete with dust wafting out of the dancers' tutus.

Riolama Lorenzo was Oliver's wistful old aunt, poignantly reliving long-passed triumphs as a ballerina, and Barette Vance bourréed across the stage as Odette, the swan of her dreams.

Enhancing Wheeldon's imaginative choreography and Lithgow's entertaining story were the often-stunning costumes and scenery, both by Jon Morrell.

Also on the program were two world premieres:

Jupiter Symphony

, by Peter Quanz, a young Canadian choreographer, and

Penumbra and Pampeana No. 2

, a two-part ballet by Matthew Neenan, Pennsylvania Ballet's choreographer in residence.

Jupiter Symphony

, set to Mozart's

Symphony No. 41

, might as easily be called

Balanchine: The Next Generation

. It reflected the master choreographer's geometric patterns and steps, and even featured tutus and unitards by Holly Hynes, the former director of City Ballet's costume shop. Most of the piece was crisply performed, although the corps lost precision near the end.

The new Neenan ballet would have worked better as two completely separate pieces or with a stronger through line in the choreography. The music, by Alberto Ginastera, was played beautifully on stage by pianist Martha Koeneman and cellist Jennie Lorenzo. But the sensibilities of the two pieces - the first resembling gorgeously flowing ballroom dancing, the second a more modern ballet - were too distinctly different to add up to a unified whole.

Contact writer Ellen Dunkel at edunkel@philly.com