FRAN AND PAUL Oscar of Bethesda love the theater. So when they were raising their children--Vicki and Brad--in Rockville, they exposed them to as many shows as possible, from student productions at Adventure Theatre to the original "Annie" in its 1976 pre-Broadway run at the Kennedy Center to "Piaf," a play about French singer Edith Piaf, in New York City.

Naturally, "Annie" was a favorite of Vicki's; she saw the Tony Award-winning musical when she was 10. But, while little girls in the audience were dreaming of being the curly-haired orphan, Vicki longed to be the villainous Miss Hannigan.

Now 32 and known as "Victoria," the Rockville High School graduate returns to Washington this month for a one-week engagement at the Warner Theatre as Miss Hannigan in the national touring company of "Annie."

Looking back, Fran Oscar admits there were times she wondered if some of the shows they took in as a family were too mature for her children. For better or worse, the youngsters responded. While Victoria crosses the country in her current role, Brad, now 35, is appearing on Broadway in "Jekyll and Hyde."

Not all families embrace theater the way the Oscars have, and not all musicals are as wholesome as "Annie." Renee Miller, who works for Baci Management Inc. (a local theatrical presenting company) fields calls from parents who have brought their elementary school-age children to see musicals like "Grease" or "Fame" and then contact Baci to complain about the profanity and content and ask for their money back.

However, it shouldn't come to that if parents do some research in advance, Miller says. (Besides, in most theaters, refunds are not offered.) In addition, parents should keep in mind another golden rule of parenting: Know your child.

This means not assuming that classics like "The Wizard of Oz" and "Peter Pan" are suitable for every kid. If your 5-year-old runs out of the family room every time the Wicked Witch or Captain Hook appears in the video version, think about how that will play out in a dark theater filled with patrons who have paid $50 a ticket to see Mickey Rooney or Cathy Rigby.

On the other hand, if your kindergartner has memorized the songs from "Grease" but has no idea what "Look at me I'm Sandra Dee, lousy with virginity" actually means, she may be at that wonderfully innocent stage where things simply float right over her head; enjoy that window of opportunity while it lasts and go see "Grease."

Going to the theater is "not always about getting it," says Miller. "It's about the experience."

But for the child who wonders what the heck Rizzo and Kenickie are doing in the back seat of that convertible, you have some explaining to do.

Theater "is such a personal thing," says Bonnie Fogel, founder of the Bethesda Academy of Performing Arts (BAPA). "I wouldn't take my kids to a lot of Broadway shows, but I'd take them to Gilbert and Sullivan."

When her children--now 23 and 27--were growing up, birthdays were celebrated by riding the train into New York to see a show. But, she says, it is more valuable for a child to go to community theater once a month than to go to an expensive production once in a blue moon.

Marvin Hamlisch, the award-winning composer who will become pops conductor of the National Symphony Orchestra next year, agrees. "The greatest gift you can give a child is for them to hear live music," Hamlisch says. "Whether or not they get the book doesn't matter. What matters is that they see something that is going to light up their eyes and their ears.

"You never know what's going to capture them," he adds. It may be "the sound of a drum or the lights or the costumes."

"When it comes to theater and kids, it's a stepping stone," says Victoria Oscar, a k a Miss Hannigan. "When you expose a child to this incredible art form, kids will naturally have a better understanding of life and people, and a whole world opens up to them."

Parental Guidance Suggested

Here are some tips for making the most out of an outing to the theater:

* Ask friends who regularly take their children to musicals for recommendations, but remember that parents expose kids to different experiences at different ages. The family down the street may have enjoyed "Cabaret," but your children may not be ready for the mature themes. "Know your own family's standards and belief systems," says BAPA's Bonnie Fogel. "Some people truly believe no art is bad and any exposure is fine. They should take their kids to anything and everything."

* Ask questions when you call the box office, but keep in mind that oftentimes the operators have not seen the show. During a recent call to Protix, one operator suggested that "Sweeney Todd" would be suitable for my 8-year-old, though she added that "the narrative can be gory." In response to my inquiry about "Chicago," a Telecharge operator referred to a fact sheet provided by the producer that stated the show "may be inappropriate for children 12 and under." A staff member for Little Theater of Alexandria was more direct. Their upcoming production of "Hair" is not suitable for children, he said. It contains nudity.

* While theaters don't actually "card" preschoolers, some have policies stating that "children under 4 are not permitted in the theater." In other cases, theaters are not only willing to sell seats to anyone, but require that every living person--no matter how small--possess a ticket in order to be admitted. My sister-in-law learned this when she took her 2-month-old son to "Rent" at Wolf Trap last summer and was required to buy him a seat. She purchased a $20 lawn seat for him, though the baby joined his parents inside the pavilion where he slept through his first musical.

* Be aware that stage versions of musicals are not always the same as the film adaptation. This is certainly true of "Annie," "Grease" and "Fame," which have different songs and even different characters.

* Broadway's "Lion King" may be the big attraction at the box office right now, but don't dismiss old-fashioned shows with those great boy-meets-girl story lines. Arena Stage's upcoming production of "Guys and Dolls" not only features Maurice Hines as gambling man Nathan Detroit, but offers some of the most kid-friendly songs in musical theater, from "A Bushel and a Peck" to "Sit Down You're Rockin' the Boat." Besides the entertainment value, musicals can complement school studies, says high school junior Josh Schulteis of Bethesda, who has appeared in many area musicals. Studying U.S. history in school added to his enjoyment of "Ragtime."

* Finally, after the show, be prepared for performance mania; your own "Annie" belting out "Tomorrow" or a chorus of lost boys singing "I Won't Grow Up."

The Show Must Go On

Washington families have many musical theater options from which to choose--from full-length, large-scale productions to shows staged by community theater companies to performances specifically for young children. In addition, area high schools frequently stage musicals and charge nominal fees. "There is no more all-American thing you can do than go to 'The Music Man' at your local high school," says Wendy Jennis, who frequently takes her daughters to school performances. Here is a sampling of area musical theater (inquire about group rates). Call your local high school about upcoming presentations.

ALDEN THEATRE -- McLean Community Center, 1234 Ingleside Ave. McLean. 703/790-9223. "Godspell," Nov. 5-6, $11.50-$12.50; "State Fair," March 31-April 15, $13-$14; "Annie," July 14-29, $11.50-$12.50.

THE AMERICAN CENTURY THEATER -- Gunston Arts Center, 2700 S. Lang St. Arlington. 703/553-8782. "The Cradle Will Rock," through Nov. 20. $15-$20. www.americancentury.orgc.

AMERICAN MUSIC STAGE -- Ernst Theatre, Northern Virginia Community College, 8333 Little River Tpk., Annandale. 703/425-9280. "Anything Goes," April 14-16 and April 21-23, $8-$10. www.sohowebdesign.com/amshomepage.htm.

ARENA STAGE -- 1101 Sixth St. SW. 202/488-3300. "Guys and Dolls," Dec. 17-Feb. 20, $32-$50. www.arenastage.orgc.

BETHESDA ACADEMY OF PERFORMING ARTS (BAPA) -- Imagination Stage, 11301 Rockville Pike, Bethesda. 301/881-5106. "Pinocchio: The Musical," through Nov. 14, $6 (children under 3 free). At Whittier Woods Playhouse, 7300 Whittier Blvd., Bethesda, 301/320-2550, BAPA student production of "Oliver," Dec. 4, 5, 10,11, $7 (children under 4 free). www.bapaarts.orgc.

BURN BRAE DINNER THEATRE -- 3811 Blackburn Rd., Burtonsville. 301/384-5800. "Fiddler on the Roof," through Nov. 28, $17-$33.95 includes dinner.

CATHOLIC UNIVERSITY -- Hartke Theatre, Harewood Drive NE. 202/319-5414. At Ward Recital Hall, "Sally," Jan. 28-30. At Hartke Theatre, "The Music Man," March 23-26. Call for ticket prices.

THE CENTER COMPANY THEATER -- Jewish Community Center of Northern Virginia, 8900 Little River Tpk., Fairfax. 703/323-7965. "David's Big Secret," Dec. 4-5, $5, $16 for family of four or more (members free).

THE CHILDREN'S THEATRE -- Thomas Jefferson Community Theatre, 125 S. Old Glebe Rd., Arlington. 703/548-1154. "Winnie the Pooh: A Christmas Tail," Dec. 27-31; "West Side Story," July 21-Aug. 5, $5-$8.

CLASSIKA THEATRE -- 4041 S. 28th St. Arlington. 703/824-6200. "This Old Fairy Tale," March 11-April 23, $10-$12. www.classika.org.

FORD'S THEATRE -- 511 10th St. NW. 703/218-6500. "Reunion, A Musical Epic in Miniature," March 7-June, $27-$43. www.fordstheatre.org.

THE KEEGAN THEATRE -- Unitarian Universalist Church of Arlington, 4444 Arlington Blvd., Arlington. 703/757-1180. "Fiddler on the Roof," Feb. 18-20 and Feb. 25-27. $7-$10. www.keegantheatre.com.

KENNEDY CENTER -- New Hampshire Avenue and Rock Creek Parkway. 202/467-4600. "Martin Guerre," Dec. 23-Jan. 16, $20-$79; "The Scarlet Pimpernell," July 5-30, call for ticket information. Imagination Celebration performances for young people and families: "How to Make an Apple Pie and See the World," Dec. 17-Jan. 7, $15; "Caddie Woodlawn," March 17-19, for ages 5 and up; $10; "Dreams," April 7-16, for ages 9 and up, $10; "Ramona Quimby," April 14-16, for ages 5 and up; $10. www.kennedy-center.org

LAZY SUSAN DINNER THEATRE -- I-95 at Route 1, Woodbridge. 703/550-7385. "Brigadoon," through Dec. 31; "1776," March 22-July 9, $17 to $32.95 includes dinner. www.lazysusan.com.

LITTLE THEATRE OF ALEXANDRIA -- 600 Wolfe St., Alexandria. 703/683-0496. "Something's Afoot," Jan. 7-29, $12-$16.

MARYLAND THEATRE -- 21 S. Potomac, Hagerstown. 301/790-3500. "Porgy and Bess," Dec. 2, $20-$30. www.mdtheatre.org.

MOUNT VERNON COMMUNITY CHILDREN'S THEATRE -- Carl Sandburg Middle School, 8428 Fort Hunt Rd., Alexandria. 703/360-0686. "Alice in Wonderland," Nov. 12-14, 20, 21, $7; "Mr. Popper's Penguin's," March 10-12 (call for ticket prices).

MUSICAL THEATER CENTER -- Albert Einstein High School, 11135 Newport Mill Rd., Kensington. 301/251-5766. "Grease," Jan. 21-23 and Jan. 28-30, $11-$13; "The Truth About Cinderella," Dec. 10-12, $7-$9. www.musicaltheatercenter.org.

NATIONAL THEATRE -- 1321 Pennsylvania Ave. NW. 800/447-7400. "Chicago," Nov. 30-Jan. 2, $35-$100. www.nationaltheatre.org or www.chicagothemusical.com .

OLNEY THEATRE -- 2001 Olney-Sandy Spring Rd., Olney. 301/924-3400. "West Side Story," Feb. 29-April 2, $28.50-$32, senior and student discounts available. www.olneytheatre.org.

PUBLICK PLAYHOUSE -- 5445 Landover Rd., Cheverly. 301/277-1710. "Winnie the Pooh," Nov. 5-6, $4-$6; " 'Twas the Night Before Christmas," Dec. 2-4, $4; "School House Rock," March 28-29, $4-$6. www.pgparks.com.

THE RESTON COMMUNITY PLAYERS -- Center Stage at the Reston Community Center, 2310 Colts Neck Rd., Reston. 703/476-1111. "West Side Story," Nov. 5-7, 12-14, 19-21; "A Chorus Line," March 10-April 1, $9-$13. www.restonplayers.org.

RIVERSIDE CENTER DINNER THEATER -- 95 Riverside Pkwy., Fredericksburg. 888/999-8527. "The Sound of Music," Nov. 4-Jan. 30; "How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying," Feb. 3-April 30; "Hello Dolly," May-July; "Carousel," August-October. $28-$39.50 includes dinner. www.riversidedt.com.

ROCKVILLE MUSICAL THEATER -- F. Scott Fitzgerald Theatre, Rockville Civic Center, Edmonston Drive and Baltimore Road, Rockville. 301/446-2580. "My Fair Lady," Nov. 5-6, 12-13, 19-20. Tickets $6-$12. www.r-m-t.org.

ROBERT E. PARILLA PERFORMING ARTS CENTER -- Montgomery College, 51 Mannakee St., Rockville. 301/279-5301. "Into the Woods," March 1-5, $6-$8. www.mc.cc.md.us/departments/reppac.

ROUND HOUSE THEATRE -- 12210 Bushey Dr., Silver Spring. 301/933-1644. "The Fantasticks," May 31-June 25, $10-$28. www.round-house.org.

ST. MARK'S PLAYERS -- St. Mark's Episcopal Church, Third and A streets SE. 202/546-9670. "Pal Joey," Nov. 5-7, 12-14, 19-20, $6-$15.

SIGNATURE THEATRE -- 3806 S. Four Mile Run Dr., Arlington. 703/218-6500. "Sweeney Todd" (sold out) through Nov. 14; "Floyd Collins," Jan. 4-Feb. 13; "Side Show," May 9-June 18, $30. www.sig-online.org.

STARS -- Galaxy Stage, 1330 East Gude Dr., Rockville. 301/610-5201. "Forever Plaid," through Dec. 19, $20-$25 or $35-$39.50 for dinner, show and dancing. www.starswebsite.com.

TOBY'S DINNER THEATRE -- 5900 Symphony Woods Rd., Columbia. 301/596-6161 or 410/730-8311. "Follies," through Nov. 14; "Holiday Hot Nostalgia," Nov. 17-Jan. 30; "The King and I," Feb. 3-June 4; "42nd Street," June 8-Sept. 10; "Evita," Sept. 14-Nov. 19. $19.50-$37 includes dinner.

THEATER ALLIANCE/CAPITOL HILL ARTS WORKSHOP -- Christ Church Stage, 620 G St. SE. 202/547-6839. "How to Eat Like a Child," March 24-April 9, $5-$10. www.chaw.org.

VIENNA THEATRE CO. -- Vienna Community Center, 120 Cherry St., Vienna. 703/242-6423. "Snoopy," April 28-May 20, $8-$9.

WARNER THEATRE -- 13th Street between E and F NW. "Annie" Nov. 30-Dec. 5. Tickets $25-$55. www.warnertheatre.com.

WASHINGTON JEWISH THEATRE -- Jewish Community Center of Greater Washington, 6125 Montrose Rd., Rockville. 301/230-3775. "The Threepenny Opera," Feb. 5-27, $10-$27. www.jccgw.org.

WAY OFF BROADWAY DINNER THEATER AND CHILDREN'S THEATER -- Willow Tree Plaza, Route 40 West, Frederick. 301/662-6600. On the main stage: "Meet Me in St. Louis," Nov. 19-Feb. 26; "Oliver," March 10-May 28; "Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat," June 9-Aug. 19. $15-$28 includes dinner. Children's Theater productions for ages 3-12: "Bremen-Town Musicians," through Nov. 20; "A Furry Christmas Carol," Nov. 27-Jan. 15; and "Aladdin," Jan. 22-April 29. $9 includes a light lunch. www.wayoffbroadway.com.

WEINBERG CENTER FOR THE ARTS -- 20 West Patrick St., Frederick. 301/228-2828. "Mahalia--A Gospel Musical," Jan. 21, $10-$20. www.weinbergcenter.org.

WEST END DINNER THEATRE -- 4615 Duke St., Alexandria. 703/370-2500. "West Side Story," through Dec. 31; "Bandstand 2000," March 16-June 18; "Lend Me a Tenor," June 22-Sept. 2. $20-$35 includes dinner. Children's productions: "The Little Mermaid," through Nov. 20; "Babes in Toyland," Nov. 27-Dec. 27. $7 (show only).

YOUNG ARTISTS THEATRE -- Cherry Tree Center, Routes 29 and 216, Laurel. 301/604-2844. "Merry Millennium," Dec. 3-29, $6. ww.erols.com/youngartists.