Bernadette Peters arrives alone at the chrome-fancy restaurant bar, her 5-foot-2 presence announced by the familiar bouquet of ringlets atop her head. Her expectant smile brightens considerably at the sight of a friend who's showed up to surprise her. She's clad all in black, the knitted top squared off at the north end of her notable bosom. Nothing in her manner suggests she's somebody special, but here on this island and in various other outposts of the civilized world she is just that: Perhaps the theater's most gifted diva of the last quarter-century. Her voice can thrill you, envelop you and break your heart, sometimes in the space of a single song, and the very mention of her credits -- a variable lot highlighted by "Sunday in the Park With George," "Song and Dance" and "Into the Woods" -- can quicken the pulse of almost any theater lover. She's just back from Staten Island, of all places, where she spent the afternoon posing with a horse for Vanity Fair. A horse? Of course. After an absence of five years, Peters is returning to the theater with a full-scale, reconceived revival of "Annie Get Your Gun" that is generating a good bit of buzz here and elsewhere. After all, the star musical, a time-honored genre on Broadway, has become something of a rarity in this era of ensemble megashows. She'll test her spurs at the Kennedy Center in Washington, where "Annie" is now in previews and will open Thursday. True, there has been minor carping that at 50, Peters is a little, well, senior for the part of the brazen young Annie Oakley. But not too much carping. After all, the show's original star, Ethel Merman, revived it successfully when she was eight years older -- in a production that was referred to, behind her back, as "Granny Get Your Gun." And if she lives to be 100, Peters will never be as old as Merman was at 58. Playwright Arthur Laurents has observed that the quality Peters projects -- the thing that reduces audiences to lovesick submission -- is "experienced innocence." She can be sexy or sultry or coy, but she's never vulgar -- and never false. In person, too, she seems the wise child, and the smooth white skin and fetching underbite do nothing to dispel the notion. Ask her about the roles she's played and she casts her eyes skyward and purses her lips around a large, pensive ummmmmm before speaking about them. (Although she's unfailingly cooperative, there's a sense that she'd rather be working than talking about it.) The youthful image comes up in any discussion of her, whether it's besotted fans or critics, who have displayed a monotonous tendency over the years to compare her with a kewpie doll. Still, by age 50, isn't that flattering? "There's nothing I can do, reading about it, about what people's perceptions are," Peters says pleasantly. "There are other things about me besides looking kewpie-dollish." She thinks about it. "I'd like people to see me as a woman now, but it depends on the role you're playing." Thirteen years ago, the New York Times's Frank Rich wrote of her, "As an actress, singer, comedienne and all-around warming presence, she has no peer in the musical theater right now." Her colleagues are no less effusive. "She's my fave -- I adore her," says James Lapine, who directed and wrote the books for "Sunday" and "Into the Woods." "She's a loving, generous person, and I think it comes through in her performances as well." Stephen Sondheim, who wrote the scores for those shows, concurs. "Like very few others, she sings and acts at the same time," he says. "Most performers act and then sing, act and then sing. . . . Bernadette is flawless as far as I'm concerned. I can't think of anything negative." Heady praise, which helps explain the considerable notice that "Annie Get Your Gun" is attracting as it makes its way to Broadway. Then, too, there's the show itself, which might be described as a classic of its kind. Coming as it did in the wake of "Oklahoma!" and "Carousel," "Annie" suffered some critical sniping for being old-fashioned even in its original 1946 production. ("Yes," said Irving Berlin, who'd written his greatest score for the show. "An old-fashioned smash.") For the new version, the producers have further adorned its pedigree by engaging Peter Stone ("1776," "The Will Rogers Follies," "Titanic") to create a new book. Stone has devised a show-within-a-show concept in which members of Buffalo Bill's Wild West company "present" Annie's story. Some song placements have been altered, and a romantic subplot, dropped from the 1966 revival, has been restored. As evidence of the show's promise, Stone recalls watching a rehearsal with Berlin's progeny. Any number of talented performers have undertaken the part of Annie -- Mary Martin, Debbie Reynolds, Betty Hutton in the movie -- but, he reports, "the Berlin daughters said to me, We're finally seeing it played right.' " Reynolds did the show in California about 20 years ago, and the testy Merman, then nearing 70, reputedly sent her a wire that said, simply, "HOW DARE YOU?" Peters has never heard that story, and she seems genuinely shocked. "You're kidding -- really?" she says. "Oh my God." She knew Merman slightly. Perhaps the great Ethel would have been more lenient with her. "What do I think she'd say to me?" she says, laughing. "I guess she'd say, How dare you?' I mean, if that's her attitude." Bernadette Lazzara can be said to have begun her career at 3 1/2, when her mother, Marguerite, observed the youngest of her three children performing in front of the family television set in Ozone Park, Queens. Marguerite had come over from Italy and harbored show-biz dreams that she quickly transferred to her offspring. Soon enough Baby Bernadette was showing up on the small screen. Her mom was always encouraging but, Peters insists, not the stereotypical stage mother. "I wouldn't let her be," she says. "We had a deal that I could quit any time I wanted to." It was her mother's idea that she change her name, the stated reason being that Lazzara was too long for marquees, but Bernadette wasn't fooled. "She was afraid I'd be stereotyped," she says. Her father's name is Peter -- he drove a bread truck -- and she chose her new name in his honor. Peters worked off and on through her childhood. In 1957, Otto Preminger cast her in the play "This Is Goggle," which, she's pretty sure, played Washington. Four years later, she was a kiddie vaudevillian in a touring company of "Gypsy." She says that from the start, "I knew something was going to happen for me. I wasn't sure what or how." During the '60s, she underwent a typical young person's struggle for self-acceptance. The issues can be more pointed for a performer. "After trying to be normal, normal, normal, fit in, fit in, fit in, that type of thing, I had to learn that it's okay to be yourself." She's laughing now, her hands up to her face. "And to be an original." Which she is. "Yeah," she says matter-of-factly. "But I had to stop trying to fit in and just be myself. When I grew up in the '60s, your hair had to be straight and you had to be skinny and have no boobs, and it was like not my era." Peters made her Broadway debut in "Johnny No Trump," a straight play that opened and closed the same night in 1967. By season's end she had landed a part in "George M!" with Joel Grey. Then came the off-Broadway "Dames at Sea" -- her first true hit -- and she was on her way. She got a lot of jobs, but most of her early shows were unsuccessful. Probably her best moments came in "Mack and Mabel" (1974), in which she portrayed the drug-addicted silent film star Mabel Normand opposite the great Robert Preston. This one played the Kennedy Center on its way to Broadway. The show contains what may be Jerry Herman's finest score, and he handed Peters an instant classic in "Time Heals Everything." Overnight, the New York Times hailed her as "a major Broadway star." She was 26. But a strong score and fine performances couldn't counteract the otherwise lousy reviews and downbeat story, in which Normand dies of an overdose. Even with Preston on hand, the show folded after 66 performances. It would be 10 years before Peters was seen again on a Broadway stage. There was a time when stars were very often the starting point for Broadway songwriters and librettists. "The King and I," "Peter Pan" and "Annie Get Your Gun" might not exist today had Gertrude Lawrence, Mary Martin and Merman not inspired them. When they weren't doing classics, these ladies and their kind did journeyman vehicles -- some of them extremely successful -- that had been perhaps even more carefully tailored to their talents. Cole Porter, who wrote five shows for Merman, analyzed her voice and decided what her three strongest notes were. Key words in her lyrics always fell on one of those notes. Then, too, the roles they played -- variations on the elegant charmer, wholesome tomboy, brassy dame -- were created to present these stars to best advantage. Such tailoring still happens once in a while, but by the time Peters came along in the late '60s, the practice was in steep decline. The story, the overall evening, came first. Stars were still cast, of course, but increasingly their role was to serve the material. The result was a reordering of the theatrical hierarchy. Angela Lansbury was magnificent in "Sweeney Todd," and Sondheim and director Hal Prince will tell you how lucky they were to have her -- but you can bet that if she'd been wrong for the part, they'd have hired someone else. Once upon a time the show might have been altered on her behalf. "We don't have stars today," says Sondheim, "because they don't do enough shows to build up a public following. Joan Crawford didn't become a star overnight. . . . Nor did Ethel Merman. You have to be groomed for that." After the failure of "Mack and Mabel," Peters decamped for California. She says she wasn't discouraged, and indeed she'd been in the process of moving west when the show came along in the first place. In Hollywood, she took on an unsuccessful TV series, "All's Fair," with Richard Crenna, appeared frequently on "The Carol Burnett Show" and gained a minor toehold in the movies. Among her pictures were "W.C. Fields and Me" (1976), "Silent Movie" (1976), "The Jerk" (1979) and "Pennies From Heaven" (1981), the last two with her then-boyfriend, Steve Martin. So she kept busy. But pretend there was a performer in, say, 1934 who made a Broadway splash comparable to the one Peters made in "Mack and Mabel" 40 years later. Without question, somebody great -- the Gershwins, Rodgers and Hart, Cole Porter, or maybe all of them -- would have been vying for her services onstage the very next season. And yet what was there for Bernadette Peters in the musical theater of 1975? She was too young and too soft for "Chicago," out of the question for the Kabuki-style "Pacific Overtures" -- and you can bet the producers of "A Chorus Line" didn't want a major Broadway star in their cast. Looking back on this day, she says she still believes Hollywood was the right decision. "I think those were the dark years of New York and of theater," she says. "I think those were the years when there weren't a lot of shows being done. . . . I figured I had to go to L.A. to make more of a name for myself." When she finally did return to Broadway in 1984, it was in perhaps her greatest role: Dot, the mistress of Georges Seurat (Mandy Patinkin) in the dazzling "Sunday in the Park." The show won the Pulitzer Prize, and Peters's radiant performance captivated both critics and the public. She followed that up the next year with Andrew Lloyd Webber's unconventional "Song and Dance," in which she was alone onstage throughout Act 1 in the role of a young Englishwoman who moves to New York and undergoes various romantic traumas. Her part was told entirely in music, and even Lloyd Webber's detractors note reluctantly that such numbers as "Unexpected Song" and "Tell Me on a Sunday" are lovely. Though the show didn't thrill critics, it ran, and she took the Tony Award. "Song and Dance" presented an onerous workload -- "an adventure that I'd go through every night," she calls it. "People would say, How many songs do you sing in the show?' " she recalls. "I don't know. I don't count them. I'd rather just go out and do it." She laughs. "Try to do it." Sondheim and Lapine's "Into the Woods," an exploration of fairy tales, brought her back in 1987 in the role of the Witch. She got top billing, but it wasn't the lead. Still, she had some magical moments, particularly when she delivered the beautiful and touching "Children Will Listen." It's become one of her standards. Peters had no problem with the size of her part -- in fact, she asked to be cast. "I thought, Well, in England you do ensemble pieces,' " she says. "You play the lead in one show, and in the next show you play something else. And also because I learned so much about life doing Sunday in the Park' that I just wanted that experience again." The past decade has brought such feature films as "Slaves of New York," Lapine's "Impromptu" and the upcoming "Snow Days," a number of TV movies, a few well-received CDs, numerous sold-out concerts. And all of one Broadway show: a so-so adaptation of "The Goodbye Girl," which lasted a few months in the 1992-93 season on the strength of her name and co-star Martin Short's. She was good in it, but organically -- in the writing -- "The Goodbye Girl" belonged to Short. Doesn't a diva deserve better? "Marty made it such a joy to do that show, and I loved doing it," she says. "Getting to know him . . . he was a great joy." Now she lapses into the general. "You sometimes get frustrated that the show isn't working as well as you had hoped it would. . . . Sometimes the elements work, and sometimes they're not going to." Fifty-year-old voices might be expected to be a little on the downward slide. But Sondheim, with whom one doesn't argue, says, "I think her voice is getting better as she gets older." And from the evidence, he's right. On recent recordings her high notes have grown surer, the sound more supple overall. Which makes it all the more ironic that Peters has done so little theater lately. Why couldn't this woman get a job? Lapine puts it best: "What role can you think of that she might have played that's been on the boards?" he asks. "There are just not musicals that are star-driven. . . . And I don't think Bernadette wanted to do just anything." Throughout most of the movies' sound era, there have been complaints that the medium didn't make good use of the great musical theater stars. Merman, Martin, Carol Channing, Bert Lahr and others all had, at best, fitful screen lives -- but there was always the stage. In Bernadette Peters's case, never mind Hollywood: For great stretches of her 30-year career, Broadway hasn't known what to do with her. Here, perhaps, is a key: The question is whether there is any show of the last 30 years that she wishes she'd gotten a crack at, and as with every other query, she's giving it her best. There's another of those small ummmmmmms, and the face scrunches just a bit as it comes to rest on her palm. Suddenly she brightens. "I'll tell you what I'm really glad I got to do," she says helpfully. "My concerts." They've been mightily successful, those concerts -- "Sondheim, etc.," a widely acclaimed Carnegie Hall benefit, is preserved on CD, and a taped London reprise will air on PBS next spring. And she has said they're now her favorite projects. Of course, she hasn't really answered the question. But this appears to be the way her mind works. She can't control what shows she's offered or the size of her roles or the impressions of people who go to see them. And most especially, the fact that if she'd been born 30 or 40 years earlier she'd probably have been a rather busier Broadway baby. If it's out of her control, she tries not to worry about it. "My years in the theater, the successful years," she muses, slipping into the past tense, "ended up being Sunday in the Park,' Song and Dance,' Into the Woods' -- I didn't have a successful show until then." She breaks into laughter. "I thought every show closed!" She'll play Annie for "a year, if all goes well," she says. If not, there are other shows, as well as the concert stage. The discussion turns again to her voice and the strange and wonderful changes that are taking place in it. Peters acknowledges all that but seems more comfortable discussing other singers. Though she speaks of no heroes, clearly there are women who are lighting the way for her. "Lena Horne was doing her concert at 65," she points out. And then there's the "amazing" Barbara Cook, who recently made a triumphant return to Carnegie Hall at 71. It's enough to give a performer hope. "I mean, my voice may lose some of its luster," Peters says, sounding not terribly disturbed at the prospect. "But look what I can look forward to, you know? Hopefully, I can keep on singing." CAPTION: "I think her voice is getting better as she gets older," says Stephen Sondheim of Peters, who stars in the revived, and revamped, production of "Annie Get Your Gun," opening Thursday at the Kennedy Center. ec CAPTION: "You sometimes get frustrated that the show isn't working as well as you had hoped it would," says Peters, shown here in the short-lived Broadway show "The Goodbye Girl." ec CAPTION: Peters with Mandy Patinkin in Stephen Sondheim's "Sunday in the Park With George," which earned the actress praise from critics and audience alike. ec CAPTION: Peters with cast members of "Into the Woods," Sondheim's exploration of fairy tales that brought her back to Broadway in 1987 in the role of the Witch. ec