In theater (and sometimes even in politics) Washington is a try-out town blowing bubbles just waiting to be burst by New York City. But the word-of-mouth and box-office advance on Annie, a musical update of the old Little Orphan Annie comic strip, is so socko that a smash Broadway run (it premieres this week) seems all but reviewer-proof. The nation's governors were knocked out by a command performance of excerpts at the White House. Rosalynn Carter was so enthralled she went back to see it with visitor Leah Rabin, the wife of the Israeli prime minister. And Amy had the kids in the cast over to play in her treehouse.

The Daddy Warbucks character has, of course, been mellowed en route from a robber-baron reactionary to a sort of Averell Harriman New Dealer. But who makes (and steals) the show—she got nine curtain calls on closing night at the Kennedy Center—is Andrea McArdle, 13, in the title role of the feisty Brillo-headed waif who chases trouble and her roots in the Great Depression.

A stickout already at 8 for her pixie puss and Brenda Lee husk of a voice, Andrea was glommed on to by a talent agent at a dance recital back home in Philadelphia. Over the years she landed some 30 commercials (Prell, Cheerios) and the role of Wendy, daughter of archbitch Stephanie Pace, on the CBS soap Search for Tomorrow. How did she get into legit? "I saw an open call notice in the showbiz papers," explains Andrea, who flips the lingo around like Tatum O'Neal. "And I tried out and became one of the orphans. I was the tough orphan, and the director liked my toughness." Indeed, Andrea soon aced out the original lead (now her understudy). "She's very good," notes McArdle, "but too sweet for the quality they wanted."

Unlike Orphan Annie, Andrea is part of a tight-knit family of four who try to be with her wherever she's performing. That means her mother alternates chaperone duties with another stage orphan's mom at a Howard Johnson motel in Manhattan. Her dad, a statistician with Amtrak, and 9-year-old brother Mike (who also shoots commercials) visit on most weekends. "Our life used to be normal," says Mrs. McArdle; "I always wanted to be busy but not this busy. Somedays we don't get time to eat." Though the star's diet is a combination of junk and health food, she maintains a playing weight of 75 pounds over 4'7". (She jogs occasionally with Pop.) Tutors keep Andrea right up with her eighth-grade class at a suburban Philadelphia parochial school, Presentation of the Blessed Virgin Mary.

It's a hassle, she explains: "We don't get paid that much, and what's left after expenses and taxes is nothing. But it's good work. I want to stay in the business." Though her Search for Tomorrow part was written out for the Washington shakedown of Annie ("They explained my absence by saying I was either asleep, at school or packed off to someone's house"), she is now being replaced. But McArdle has also shot a Welcome Back, Kotter episode that could lead to an ABC Sweathog spin-off, Horshack. Does all that showbiz concern her folks? "People say to me," her mom confesses, "look at Freddie Prinze and Judy Garland. But I don't worry. I'm not a stage mother. I don't push Andrea—she pulls me."