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Actor and writer Christine Heesun Hwang does not know what she would be doing if she hadn't had her passion for theater ignited at Minnetonka High School and nurtured in the larger Twin Cities arts community.

"I probably would not be in the national tour of 'Les Misérables,'" she said. That tour, in which she plays courageous thief Eponine, opens Tuesday for a two-week run at the Orpheum Theatre.

She will be performing on the big stage where she once sang and danced as a high school freshman.

"It's such an honor to come back to a place where I learned so much," Hwang said, adding that she will probably be nervous. "It's always easier to perform for strangers than for people you know and love."

Those people include mentors in the Hennepin Trust Theatre's Spotlight Education program, which builds confidence and skills with 8,000 students from 100 schools annually.

"Christine is such a unique, grounded, thoughtful artist," said director Kelli Foster Warder, who chaperoned Hwang in New York after she twice won the Triple Threat Award in Spotlight. celebrating achievements in acting, singing and dance. The honor included trips to the Big Apple for master classes with top-notch talent.

"It was impressive to watch her in these classes taught by Broadway directors and performers, and how she amazed them with her talent, choices and maturity," Foster Warder said.

Teacher Lauren Bartelt, associate director of theater at Minnetonka High, met Hwang when, as a ninth-grader, Christine sang "The Movie in My Mind," one of the bar girl numbers in "Miss Saigon."

"What was impressive was that she could find her way into these characters that are outside the realm of her experience — find that spark and authenticity," said Bartelt. "I remember telling [a colleague] that this is one you don't want to miss."

An academic brat, Hwang was born at Yale New Haven Hospital, while her father was on a fellowship at the Yale School of Medicine. His work as a doctor and clinical professor took the family to sundry stops across the country, including Waukee, Iowa; Sioux Falls, S.D., and Seattle. By the time Hwang was 20, she had moved seven times.

Minnesota coincided with her high school years.

"This is the only place where I stayed in school for all the grades offered," Hwang said appreciatively. She honed her craft, and also found her voice as a queer Korean-American woman.

"I was a shy kid and it really was pivotal" to my growth, Hwang said.

It all began in Minnetonka

It was theater at Minnetonka that drew her out of her shell, giving her a place where she could be loud without fear. In 10th grade, she played lusty Meg in "Brigadoon" opposite a senior. A year later, she also headlined "Pippin," a show that was totally in her wheelhouse, her teacher said.

"She's got this amazing belt and stage presence," said Bartelt, who also worked with her on straight plays such as "The Normal Heart." "It's such an emotional piece with a character whose core is all about passion and advocacy, which is close to Christine's heart as someone who advocates for marginalized groups like queer students and students of color. She really has been such a role model for all of us."

Hwang was so jazzed about performing during her freshman year at Minnetonka that she applied for and got into the famed Interlochen Arts Camp in Michigan, launching a GoFundMe campaign to cover costs. The only problem was that she hadn't told her parents or secured their blessing. In the end, she would refund the donations.

"Trying to convince two Korean immigrant parents that your daughter wants to become an actor, that's not the easiest thing to do," Hwang said.

After her illustrious high school career — she was named a 2017 finalist in theater by the National YoungArts Foundation — Hwang enrolled in the BFA program at Ithaca College. But her college career was short-circuited, and for a good reason. Hwang was cast in the third national tour of "Miss Saigon" as an alternate for Kim, the role made famous by Lea Salonga.

The part required strong vocals, solid acting chops and lot of stamina.

"'Miss Saigon' was a very difficult experience and not so much because of the material," Hwang said. "I left college for it and thrown into a very big show with a lot of responsibility. There are things about tour that you can only learn about when you're on tour, and very rarely do 20-year-olds know how to take care of their physical and mental health."

Love and revolution

She relishes the opportunity to play Eponine, a courageous character who falls in love and ultimately gives her life for revolutionary Marius.

"It's so cheesy but it's the love, for me, that makes this role so great," Hwang said. "When I first came into this, I was like, how am I going to sing a song about a crush on a boy that makes me feel like I'm going to die?"

She found the answer later. Eponine "is not just street smart or another girl in love with a boy," Hwang continued. "This boy is her coping mechanism — her ticket out of that [shady] life."

Hwang said that in some ways, she connects deeply with Eponine.

"We're both hard-shelled on the outside but squishy-ishy on the inside," said Hwang. "The defenses are always up but at the end of the day, I'm just a ball of sweety, savory emotions."

'Les Misérables'

Who: Composed by Claude-Michel Schönberg, Alain Boublil and Herbert Kretzmer. Lyrics and book by Schönberg and Boublil. Directed by Laurence Connor and James Powell.
When: 7:30 p.m. Tue.-Thu., 8 p.m. Fri., 2 & 8 p.m. Sat., 1 & 6:30 p.m. Sun. Ends Dec. 18.
Where: Orpheum Theatre, 910 Hennepin Av. S., Mpls.
Tickets: $40-$140. 1-800-982-2787 or