By PATRICIA O'HAIRE
You won't find Max Von Essen's and Mandy Gonzalez' names on the marquee of the Minskoff Theater, where the musical "Dance of the Vampires" opens Dec. 9.
When the show's star is Michael Crawford, the original "Phantom of the Opera," theatergoers aren't particularly interested in the supporting cast.
That was certainly the case last week at the Minskoff, where "Vampires" is in previews. But as the audience filed out, the famous Phantom was not the only topic of conversation.
"We'd gone to see Michael Crawford," said Kermit Gilman, visiting from Chattanooga, Tenn., with his wife, Cathy. "But we were knocked out by those two young performers."
If Von Essen's last name sounds familiar, it's because his father, Thomas, was the city's fire commissioner on Sept. 11, 2001. The commissioner was a constant presence at Rudy Giuliani's side during the early, wrenching days after the attack on the World Trade Center.
"I was at home when the attack came down and I didn't get a chance to speak to my father for several days," recalls the younger Von Essen.
"So I kept up with events on TV. The first time I saw my father [after 9/11] was three days later at the funeral of [Fire Dept. chaplain] Father Mychal Judge [who was killed when the towers collapsed].
"My parents saw the first preview of 'Vampires.' They're coming back opening night - but [with all the changes] they're going to be seeing an entirely different play."
This is the first time either actor has originated a major role on Broadway. Von Essen, 27, once a backup singer for Liza Minnelli, understudied in the 2000 revival of "Jesus Christ Superstar" - and went on as the lead on several occasions. Gonzalez, 24, was recently the understudy for Amneris in "Aida."
In "Vampires," Gonzalez plays Sarah, a beautiful young villager and the object of aging vampire Crawford's passion. Tall and slim, with a lyrical voice, the California-born actress is not particularly perturbed to work in the shadows of a superstar - she became comfortable in front of huge crowds when she sang backup for Bette Midler on tour.
Von Essen, who was born in Queens and raised in Rockville Centre, plays Mandy's handsome love interest, Alfred, who battles Crawford for her soul.
"He is one of the nicest guys I've ever met," says Angelo Del Rossi, who manages the Paper Mill Playhouse in Millburn, N.J., where Von Essen played Freddie in a recent revival of "My Fair Lady."
"He played that role as well as anybody has ever played it."
Bardo Ramirez, managing director of the Vineyard Theater downtown, where Gonzalez won an Obie Award for "Eli's Comin'," describes her as an actress with "an amazing voice. We found her in one of our open calls, and it's very rare you can find a leading role like that in an open call. She's just so very, very talented - no doubt she will be a star."
Perhaps the producers will need to put up a larger marquee.