"Annie," a musical that is also a virtual industry, returned to Washington last night for its fourth engagement here -- a record that only Franklin D. Roosevelt seems to have matched. At this late date, it is fairly safe to say that if you don't know whether or not you want to see the show, you never will. After a point, some things just get beyond explaining.

What you should know is that this edition -- at the Kennedy Center Opera House for the next four weeks -- is in better shape than the two that preceeded it, if not the original, which tried out here in 1977. While the chorus appears to have shrunk a bit in numbers, the lead roles are in fine hands. Kathleen Freeman has put the role of Miss Hannigan, scourge of orphans, right back on track, after the derailing it suffered last time around under Ruth Kobart. If you close your eyes, you'd almost think Andrea McArdle was singing Annie's songs, instead of Becky Snyder. And Rhodes Reason's name shouldn't stop you for an instant. He's really a most likeable Daddy Warbucks.

The rest falls into place very neatly, and I suppose the only danger is that the songs have been played to death by now. Even so cheerful a number as "Tomorrow" can, with enough repetition, bring out the murderous rage in otherwise peaceable souls. My loyalties have long since switched to "We Want to Thank You," the sweetly malicious tribute, sung by the broke and the unemployed to Herbert Hoover. Cute only goes so far. Malice has sticking power. Fortunately, Miss Hannigan is on hand to provide some welcome curdle with "Little Girls" and "Easy Street," the latter still a showstopper.

Counting last night's performance, I have now seen "Annie" six times, which is more than I've seen "Hamlet." "Annie," of course, is a show you take the children to, so until the birth rate falls off dramatically, there's a continuing demand. "Annie," too, has a salutary moral: If you keep your chin up and mind your manners, you'll come into millions. "Hamlet" doesn't make much of a case for manners. Nor should it be overlooked that "Annie" features dogs, dancing orphans, a 15-foot Christmas tree and Times Square, whereas "Hamlet" offers only one mad scene and "To be or not to be."

Talk has it that "Annie's" creators are entertaining thoughts of "Annie II," which if Sylvester Stallone is any trailblazer, will lead to "Annie III." Then we'll have The Annie Trilogy, which will be performed more often than The Oresteia. Well, who's to carp? It's a pleasant and appealing show, after all, and I'd be the first to say that it deserves every cent it has earned, if the sums weren't quite so astronomical.

Not only does "Annie" sell tickets. It sells pins, books, posters, dresses, dolls and, for all I know, home permanents. One thing is certain: You can't hug a "Hamlet" doll after the performance.

ANNIE. By Thomas Meehan, Charles Strouse and Martin Charnin. Directed by Martin Charnin; choreography, Peter Gennaro; sets, David Mitchell. With Rhodes Reason, Becky Snyder, Kathleen Freeman, Kathryn Boule, Jon Rider, Siobhan O'Carroll, David Green. At the Opera House through Sept. 26.