Never underestimate the importance of an understudy.

You know who they are - the actors whose names are in small type at the bottom of the program. They're sort of in the same category as the runner-up in a beauty pageant. If the leading performers can't make the performance, the understudy will step in.It happened a couple of times during "Peter Pan" recently at the Capitol Theatre, when Cathy Rigby was too sick to go on and her understudy took over the role.

And it happened on opening night Saturday night for "The Vampire." Eric Jensen, a longtime member of the Desert Star ensemble, had also been double-cast the past few weeks in Hale Center Theater's production of "Heaven Can Wait."

Since the latter production was nearing the end of its run and there were only about three or four performances of the two competing shows overlapping, there shouldn't have been a problem. The leading actor in HCT's alternate cast could simply take over the rest of those performances, freeing Jensen to move into the "Vampire" role.

But when an emergency arose at Hale Center Theater, it complicated things.

Maybe heaven can wait, but the show must still go on - so Jensen kept playing his "Joe Pendleton" role and his Desert Star understudy, Dan Larrinaga, took over the title role in "The Vampire."

Dan, like Eric, is an actor of considerable experience and talent. From the moment he lurked onto the stage (to finalize negotiations with hapless realtor Mr. Renfield, for a move from Transylvania, where there's apparently a shortage of good, fresh blood, to a remote, long-neglected abby outside of London) we knew we were in for a real treat.

This is not a dark and somber, dramatic look at Count Dracula. The only dark moments are those when the lights are doused for scene changes.

The cast, under direction of Mary Parker Williams, is obviously having as much fun on stage as the audience is around their cabaret tables.

The cast, including pinch-hitter Larrinaga, is first-rate.

Especially Troy Lunt. I don't believe Lunt is really an actor. In actuality, he's 130 pounds of Silly Putty. One of the finest comedy actors in the community, he's in fine form here as one of the no-account Count's victims. As the loony Renfield, Lunt keeps everyone in Dr. Jonathan Seward's sanitorium on the run.

"Madness is the last refuge of the sanest of men," Renfield claims, as he runs off in nearly as many directions as his wisps of hair.

Sharon Kenison is also outstanding as Lucy, comatose one moment, the floating willy-nilly the next, when she falls under the hypnotic power of the Caped Count.

Musical director Val David Smithson's hilarious adaptations of several familiar songs also add considerably to the show, such as Dracula and Lucy's hot tango, "It Don't Mean A Thang If It Ain't Got That Fang" ("Your plasma has that old razzmatazz," Dracula croons).

Other standouts in the cast were JaNae Gibbs as plus-sized Nurse Gibbs (who does a "Hey, Big Spender" takeoff: "He's a man of extinction, a real blood-sucker. . ."); Christy Summerhays as Mina, Dr. Seward's lovely wife, who also falls under Dracula's deadly spell; Gary Winterholler as Dr. VanHelsing; Steve Sater as the frustrated Dr. Seward, and Ron Jewett as Butterworth, Seward's confused assistant.

Shawn Maxfield's choreography also keeps things moving, not only racing neck-and-neck in the chase to thwart Dracula's batty schemes, but also during the "1960s Radio Hour" olios that followed.