Whoever and whoever they are, the potential saviors and unknown, geniuses of the American musical theater must ask themselves hard questions -- like "Why am I alive?" -- when they consider the phenomenon of "Annie."

Born at the Kennedy Center in 1977, "Annie" has kept its rag doll head afloat through mre than 1,700 performances on Broadway, while its curly clones have scampered across hinterland America, England, Japan, South Africa, Australia and Mexico. Generations of freckle-faced kids have, presumably, soaked their hair in Red Dye No. 2 and injected hormones of being the next Andrea McArdle. Heaven only knows how many have been lured into prostitution or kid-porn by fast-talking Svengalis posing as casting agents for the various "Annie" road companies.

And now this triumphantly second-rate musical has returned to Washington for a third time. Whatever the certain something is that accounts for "Annie's" extraordinary appeal, it seems to be particularly contagious here. So the best course of action for the unafflicted is to get with it or get out of the way. (Solace may be taken in the thought that the Kennedy Center, as a major investor, has been able to subsidize other, perhaps even worthier activities from "Annie's" profits.)

"Annie" is, of course, based on "Little Orphan Annie," which has enjoyed its own long run -- half a century now -- on the comic pages of American newspapers. Thomas Meehan's libretto puts the story in 1933, and ropes in FDR and his cabinet as prominent characters (although the FDR in this company looks more than like Walter Mondale). Still, the story keeps faith with the essential one-dimensionality of the comic-strip form as it follows an 11-year-old urchin's struggles to escape from a nasty orphanage (the sort where inmates are kept for indeterminate sentences, ranging up to life imprisonment), and to find her parents with the help of a crotchety millionaire.

Like other musicals based on comic strips ("Superman" was one which happened to involve the same composer), "Annie" tries to kid its material and take it seriously at the same time. Some mighty peculiar jokes emerge from its muddled intentions. The villainous Lily St. Regis explains, for example, that she was named after the hotel. "Oh yeah, which floor?" asks Miss Hannigan, the headmistress of the orphanage.

For all Meehan's amendments, however, the underwhelming strength of the musical derives from the cockamamie characters of the comic strip (created in 1924 by Howard Gray), and from the frolicsome, aggressively unoriginal score, by Martin Charnin an Charles Stouse. Who would have thought the world was waiting for another song tribute to the Big Apple ("N.Y.C.") or another ode to the high life ("Easy Street") or another summons to universal latent optimism ("Tomorrow")? Yet, "Annie" hits these notes with a lamebrained sincerity and razzmatazz that almost make lake of inspiration, well, on inspiration.

This company has a good thing, too, in John Schuck, who has always been a bit of a cartoon presence in Robert Altman's movies and as Sgt. Enright on T.V.'s "McMillan & Wife." As Daddy Warbucks, Schuck turns out to have Opera House-sized lung power to go with his jolly contortions of lip and brow. His sheer audibility comes along just at the right moment -- midway through the first act, when it was begun to seem that we'll be lucky to follow 30 percent of the dialogue and perhaps 10 percent of the lyrics.

Ruth Kobart, complete with fright wig, plays Miss Hannigan much as Alistair Sim played the drag headmistress of the "St. Trinians" movies. A veteran portrayer of musical-comedy ogres (she possed Zero Mostel around the original "A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum"), Kobart has everything for the role except enough material. As Meehan has written the part, most of Miss Hannigan's laughs come from have her feet stepped on by her rebellious charges.

As for those charges, they are a likable bunch of ragamuffins who sing, dance and fit just about anybody's definition of real darn cute. Even with the youthful advantage of proximity to the floor microphones, however, the orphans had trouble being heard and understood during Saturday night's performance.As for the lastest Annie herself, she is a pint-sized bundle of complete professionalism with a singing voice fully equal to two fine tunes, "Maybe" and "Tomorrow." But where in the world did an actress of 14 or so come up with the stage name "Louanne"? Isn't there a provision of the child-labor laws that prohibts minors from adopting mononyms? If not, somebody should get it on.

ANNIE, a musical with book by Thomas Meehan, music by Charles Strouse, and lyrics by Martin Charnin; directed by Martin Charnin; choreographed by Peter Gennaro; settings by David Mitchell; costumes by Theoni V. Aldredge; lighting by Judy Rasmuson. With John Schuck, Louanne, Ruth Kobart, Martha Whitehead, James Todkill, Michael Calkins and Linda Manning.

At the Kennedy Center Opera House through Sept. 5.