Don’t expect 19th-century decorousness or gingerbread-scented sentiment from “ ’Twas the Night Before Christmas,” Adventure Theatre’s latest production. Ken Ludwig’s children’s entertainment may take its title from the opening of the beloved poem “A Visit From St. Nicholas,” which first appeared in print in 1823. But a momentum and ebullience worthy of the Pixar era animate this world-premiere play, whose story line involves a heist, a duel with rapiers, some hip-hop, a squirt gun, a perilous airplane flight and an elf’s stint as a secret agent.
Not that locally based dramatist Ludwig, whose work has been seen on Broadway, ignores the verses that are commonly attributed to Clement Clarke Moore. Those stockings hung by the chimney with care? They turn up in the play, which is winningly directed by Jerry Whiddon. So does jolly old St. Nicholas (known here as Santa). And remember the poem’s assertion that “all through the house / Not a creature was stirring / Not even a mouse”? Well, we get to know the mouse, whose name is Amos, and who, by the way, was stirring on Christmas Eve: He was stirring cookie batter.
But Amos (Rex Daugherty) agrees to put pastry on hold when an elf named Calliope (Rachel Zampelli) arrives with an SOS from Santa’s workshop. A major mixup is snarling the seasonal Naughty-and-Nice list, and only Amos and his human friend Emily (Emily Levey) can fix it. At the North Pole, the threesome runs up against the skulduggery of Sir Guy (Gary Sloan), an elf once fired for trying to sell Santa’s sleigh to Wal-Mart. Needless to say, virtue prevails, with help from Amos’s twin brother (Daugherty), a crackerjack fencer.
Spicing up the adventure is some cheerful farce involving frantic pursuits, mistaken identities and the use of a frying pan as a club. It all clocks along at an exuberant clip, but director Whiddon doesn’t let the brisk pace blur Ludwig’s whimsical humor. (Parents may relish the throwaway reference to “Paradise Lost”; kids may prefer the elves’ oddball cheerleading ritual.) The talented performers, who do some role-doubling, lend the story further zest: Wearing an outfit that might have been filched from “The Three Musketeers,” Sloan aces the dastardliness of Sir Guy (who terrorizes the elves by threatening to serve them — wait for it — cold hot chocolate), and Alex Perez fills in ably as Guy’s sidekick, Multch. Zampelli finds a quirky vibrancy in Calliope, and Daugherty draws hilarious distinctions between the timorous Amos and his swashbuckling twin.
Set designer Luciana Stecconi and props designer Andrea “Dre” Moore give Ludwig’s enjoyably kooky world a vividness that recalls Moore’s sugarplum-citing poem. With pictures in Victorian-style frames hanging on wood-paneled walls, Amos’s home smacks of old-world elegance, while the North Pole studio is a toy nirvana, its shelves crammed with stuffed animals and other amusements. Such a playful spirit romps through “ ’Twas the Night Before Christmas,” you might think the show itself was a product of Santa’s workshop.
Wren is a freelance writer.
by Ken Ludwig, based on the poem by Clement Clarke Moore. Directed by Jerry Whiddon; assistant director, Jason Schlafstein; movement/choreography, Karin Abromaitis; costumes, Chelsey Schuller; lighting, Andrew F. Griffin; music director, Wayne Chadwick; sound design, Brandon Roe. Recommended for ages 4 and older. One hour. Through Jan. 2 at Adventure Theatre, 7300 MacArthur Blvd., Glen Echo. 301-634-2270 or visit adventuretheatre.org.