IT'S TIME once more for the annual holiday entertainment sweepstakes. The Folger Theater is first out of the gate with a new entry -- "Crossed Words," an original musical by Hugh Atkins and Mike Laflin, who collaborated on last year's "Cinderella." So far, the traditional "Nutcrackers" and "Messiahs" and even Ford's Theater's annual "A Christmas Carol" have nothing to worry about.

"Crossed Words" aims for the British "panto" style, a zippy mixed bag ideally combining the melodic cleverness of Gilbert & Sullivan with the silliness of the "Carry On" movies and a taste of Monty Python lunacy. What the Folger has settled for is a muddleheaded melange a few grades shy of sophomoric, dominated by Benny Hill's type of archaic, leering nonsense.

If you get a chuckle out of hyphenated last names, this is the show for you. The cast stops just short of nudging the audience in the ribs to put across a punchline; still, four out of five gags loudly bite the dust. This kind of forced farce and painful punning makes the return engagement of "Sugar Babies" look fresh in hindsight.

The tuneful score is a pleasant pastiche -- Broadway belters meet British music hall ballads -- and a trio led by pianist Rob Bowman bashes it out energetically. Alas, the tunes are draped over an inconsequential story, a forgettable something about a daffy lord and lady in charge of a plush penal colony and a villain who has a pair of seven- foot ostriches for henchmen, with a meager assortment of inexpensive-looking magic tricks sprinkled in.

The show was originally directed by Davey Marlin-Jones, who pulled out three days before opening night, and Folger artistic director John Neville-Andrews took the reins. It's all supposed to be lovably raggedy, but it looks more like last-minute panic.

The Folger's resident stalwarts gamely make a go of the pratfalls and tap dances and avoid looking down their noses at it all. Guest artist Lucinda Hitchcock-Cone stands out as prim Lettice Preigh (get it? nudge, nudge), who does a neat take on the old "Why-Miss-Faversham-without-your- glasses-you're-beautiful" routine.

"Crossed Words" seems to have been in the can for quite a while -- many of the jokes are suspiciously dated. The Shakespeare spoofs are uncomfortable next to the television tweaks, which don't agree with the stale political jokes (including another stab at "it rhymes with witch"). And it's hard to squeeze new laughs from last year's cracks about Richard Simmons and the Americas Cup. This type of topical tomfoolery is better off in the hands of enthusiastic amateurs like the bunch at the Hexagon Club, who have the sense to keep it fresh and stick to the skit format.

CROSSED WORDS -- At the Folger Theater through January 6.