"Gypsy" is a musical about the unlikely rise to stardom of stripper Gypsy Rose Lee. But dominating the show with her furious ambition and her unbridled chutzpah is Gypsy's mother, Rose. Broadway has yet to come up with a richer portrait of the stage mother. What Medea is to Greek tragedy, Rose is to musical comedy.

At the Harlequin Dinner Theatre in Rockville, Patricia Pearce plays the role, originally created by Ethel Merman, and her fierce and often touching performance lends weight to a generally credible revival, scheduled through April 25. Pearce's voice isn't Merman's (whose is?), but she brings an actress' sensibility to such numbers as "Everything's Coming Up Roses," "Some People" and that hallucinating finale, "Rose's Turn." Peeling off the layers of brass, Pearce discovers the woman's battered heart.

Set in the waning days of vaudeville, "Gypsy" is long on backstage color, although this production seems more encumbered than aided by the two revolving stages that Charles Vaughan III has designed to accommodate the shifting scenery. Director William Wesbrooks, however, has a nice feel for the cheesier strata of show business and the stalwart performers who are trapped in them. Spencer Harrill comes over nicely as the decent but weak-willed agent Rose can't bring herself to marry. Joanne Schmoll is sweetly ridiculous as Baby June (the real-life June Havoc), until she rebels and flees Rose's clutches. That leaves the awkward Louise (the incipient Gypsy Rose Lee) to fulfill her mother's driving dreams of stardom. Deborah Cristina Moore convincingly handles the transformation from ugly duckling to stripper of renown.

Much of the show's appeal comes from its zestful recreation of those two-bit acts that helped push vaudeville into its grave. The Harlequin's supporting performers don't quite have the hokey skills that are required. But without violating the collective propriety of a family audience, this production does just fine by "You Gotta Have a Gimmick." That, you may recall, is the advice offered to the young Gypsy by three tired burlesque queens, who realize that talent--or a lack of it--is not so important as the way you dress (or undress) it. As usual, the exhilaratingly impudent number stops the show.