More than anything else, the current Howard University production of the classic children's operetta "Babes in Toyland" is a visual delight. From the first scene to the last, Joe Selmon's brilliantly colored sets are splendid images of fantasy -- truly the stuff of which children's dreams are made.

Scene One is set in "Contrary Mary's Garden," where the Widow Piper and her 14 children play against a backdrop of surrealistic greenery. Scene Two is a short but dangerous whirl through a spider's forest. It is an eerie but beautifully lit ice-green fog in which human insects thrash about in an elaborate web dance. The final scene in the Master Toymaker's bright orange, neon-trimmed workshop, and is really just a charming peak into an oversized toy box.

Crisp, brilliantly colored costumes on each of the 51 cast members complete the rainbow of images in this show, playing Fridays through Sundays through Nov. 23 at the Ira Aldridge Theater, on the edge of the campus. It is the Howard drama department's first production of the season and it features, among other delights, "toy" ballerinas, jesters and "dolls" who suspiciously resemble members of the university's children's theater.

"Babes In Toyland" is directed by Howard drama professor Kelsey E. Collie, who last year planned to leave the Howard University Children's Theater without a director. At the time, the children's theater was a community outreach program of the university and could not pay Collie for the enormous amount of additional time he spent as its director. This year, however, the university has taken the children's theater under its official wing -- Howard University Children's Theater is now a part of the university's drama department. "As such, I'm stuck with the job," Collie jokes.

Russell R. Barnes in Groucho Marx costume, oddly enough (the black-and-white suit, thick eyebrows and mustache, parted hairdo and half-bent stance are undeniably Marx trademarks) is outstanding as the dastardly, penny-pinching villain Barnaby who would, if he could, do his own nephew out of an inheritance, and steal his young fiancee to boot.

"What a waste of money. All these gegaws just to keep some little brats happy," Barnaby says, even as the audience cheers in delight as the curtain rises on the toymaker's shop.

Barnaby elicits the proper number of boos from the audiences, but somehow Barnes makes the character lovable just the same.

Collette Hill, who plays opposite Barnes as the Widow Piper, is as lusty as she is funny in her wonderful performance.

Neither Hill nor Barnes has a singing role in this musical, but the show turns on their every appearance, nonetheless. Unfortunately, the musical performances -- by Darryl Quinton and Carla Davis and Valerie Scott, to name a few -- which are probably very good, are lost to poor acoustics in the small hall.

"Babes In Toyland" is choreographed by Linda R. Wharton and conducted by Dingwall Fleary, with Napoleon J. Reed as musical director, George H. Epting as lighting designer and Rae Darlington as costume coordinator. For information, show times and tickets, call 636-7050.