Talk about your Christmas par-tay! The big glittering tree, the girls in their satin and tulle, the music, the dancing -- lots and lots of dancing -- and now young Claire is nestled in bed, cradling the nutcracker doll her favorite relative has just given her.

"That ain't no ordinary nutcracker," cautions Claire's Aunt Pearle, wagging a manicured finger. "That's a chocolate nutcracker, honey. Girl, that's Godiva."

And there perish the similarities between any conventional "Nutcracker" and "The Chocolate Nutcracker," which opened Wednesday night at the Lincoln Theatre and continues through tomorrow.

Not that diverging from the path of past "Nutcrackers" is a bad thing. In fact, here it's a very, very good thing. Where your run-of-the-mill holiday ballet is, alas, excruciatingly familiar, this one quickly leaves tradition behind for new directions -- wild, far-flung, loopy directions that go on and on, but new ones just the same.

Where the 19th-century version is starchily Old-Europe, this one finds its way through Harlem, Jamaica, Egypt and points south.

Where the old one is vanilla, this is, uh, chocolate.

This isn't the first Afrocentric version of "The Nutcracker," but it is one of the few of note to appear here in recent years. Its closest cousin is perhaps "The Harlem Nutcracker" by modern dance choreographer Donald Byrd, which toured nationally a few years ago and made brilliant use of the Duke Ellington-Billy Strayhorn arrangements of many of the Tchaikovsky tunes.

"The Chocolate Nutcracker," which starts off with a few selections from the Ellington score, is not nearly so polished. Its main faults are its length (Wednesday's performance clocked in at more than 3 1/2 hours, including a half-hour wait past curtain time) and some poor choices of music. (Miles Davis, Nat and Natalie Cole and Sergio Mendes join Ellington -- no problems there -- but so do thumping techno and schmaltzy soul.) However, it is terrific fun. It is raucous, glitzy, infectious fun. Much, much, much more fun than the recent dour Bolshoi Ballet production. And, success of successes, it does what a family ballet should do: entertain and captivate all ages, speak particularly to the young imagination and lay on thick the emotional power of dance.

What made this work so compelling despite its meanderings was the obvious and intense commitment of the performers. The cast of 120, mostly local children from preschool to teens, includes some standout dancers and many very good ones. They opened the show with a burst of jitterbugging and back-handspring acrobatics, churned their way through torso-shuddering African dance and a hip-whirling Brazilian Carnival, and scarcely let up even by evening's end, somewhere past 11 o'clock. Clearly, someone did a bang-up job inspiring and coaching them.

That would be former Howard University professor LaVerne Howell Reed, who conceived this show back in the 1950s, when as a ballet student she danced just about every part in her school's "Nutcracker" -- soldier, mouse, snowflake -- except Clara, the star. (That was half a century ago, but in truth, not much has changed. Have you seen many black Claras?) Reed vowed to write her own multicultural production one day, one featuring children of color and targeted to the same, incorporating music that the audience would find uplifting and familiar, as well as dance styles of the African diaspora.

"The Chocolate Nutcracker" premiered in 1994 in Los Angeles, with Debbie Allen as Aunt Pearle, who in addition to bestowing Claire with the gift of the title also serves as the show's narrator. Since then, it has toured to various cities, first appearing here two years ago. This is its second local run.

The beginning follows the mold of the original "Nutcracker" in setting up a series of vaudeville-style acts. Aunt Pearle (the stately and charismatic Kiki Shepard, of "Showtime at the Apollo" fame) tells Claire (12-year-old Donni Early) that her nutcracker is in fact a bewitched prince who will return to his Denzel Washington-handsome self when he finds his one true love. Claire falls asleep and dreams of such a thing happening, by way of a magical princess (former Dance Theatre of Harlem member Rhea Roderick) who leads Claire and her candy consort (Broadway dancer Christopher Freeman) around the world. They hit Africa, the Caribbean and South America as well as an unmappable Snake Pit, the Land of Miles (as in Davis) and Gospel Land. (Not in that order, however. Gospel Land would seem to be a natural climax -- how can you get much higher? But from there the trio went on to be moved by another spirit altogether at Carnival's beaded, bangled, uninhibited streetfest.)

There is very little subtlety here, and quite a lot of Vegas. The bellybutton makes numerous appearances, as do gold lame{acute} bra tops. What is undeniably authentic and virtually omnipresent, however, are big, bold spirit and quite a lot of joy. Which are worth the price of admission, in any flavor.