Pennsylvania Ballet revived

Carnival of the Animals

on Thursday at the Academy of Music, and it continues to be a delightful, colorful piece that, like ballet, transforms characters into other beings.

Written and narrated on stage by John Lithgow, and choreographed by Christopher Wheeldon to music by Camille Saint-Saëns, Carnival is the story of a boy, Oliver Pendleton Percy the Third (the personable Lucas Tischler, notable in winters past as both Fritz and the Nutcracker Prince), who gets separated from his class during a field trip to the natural history museum. He falls asleep and dreams that his classmates, teachers, friends, and family have become animals.

His teacher becomes a lion, his classmates hyenas, the school nurse - Lithgow in a dress - an elephant, wider than tall.

Lithgow plays with the audience, offering local references: "a species that always drove Oliver bats: the spotted Main Line younger sibling," and Oliver's piano teacher is "a manic-depressive baboon, whose shrieks could be heard in North Wales."

A transformative scene has Lauren Fadeley as the school librarian, a kangaroo in a frumpy dress, with a secret dream life. In front of Oliver's eyes, she dives into a book and becomes a beautiful mermaid among an amusing aquatic corps de ballet.

Wheeldon often presents a ballet within the ballet, and Carnival is no exception, with ancient fossils dancing in visibly dusty tutus.

Lithgow and Wheeldon debuted Carnival in 2003 in New York, and the Pennsylvania Ballet first danced it in 2008 - just long enough ago for the jokes to be funny all over again.

The program opened with two Balanchine ballets. Ballo Della Regina, set to music from Verdi's opera Don Carlos, is a fast-moving set of variations.

The Four Temperaments is an iconic leotard ballet, based on the medieval idea that one's humors - melancholic, sanguinic, phlegmatic, and choleric - must be in balance. Balanchine premiered it in 1946 on his opening program for the Ballet Society, the forerunner of the New York City Ballet.

Carnival of the Animals is a charming, appealing starter ballet, especially if the author is on stage narrating. And while the audience is there, they're likely to enjoy the Balanchine, too. Welcome, next generation of ballet fans.

Additional performances: 2 and 8 p.m. Saturday and 2 p.m. Sunday at the Academy of Music. Tickets: $15-$125. Information: 215-893-1999 or www.paballet.org.

Contact Ellen Dunkel

at edunkel@philly.com.