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Longtime Friends Come Together to Bring 'Hedwig' to Life at the Maverick

Updated: Jun 13

The underground punk musical rocks Fullerton’s Maverick Theater just in time for Pride Month.

From left: Chris Gage, Kobe Darby, Dennis Tong as Hedwig, Sho Fujieda on drums, and Michelle Hernandez as Yizhak in "Hedwig and the Angry Inch" at Maverick Theater. Photo by Austin Bauman, courtesy of Maverick Theater
 

Dennis Tong arrived around 5 p.m. to Fullerton’s Maverick Theater on a recent Friday to begin his transformation. On his way, he made a stop to buy some tomatoes. 


“We use real tomatoes in this show, I’ll just say that,” Tong said. 


Tomatoes are indeed a running theme in the 95-minute, one-act glam rock musical known as “Hedwig and the Angry Inch” – a production that both defies boundaries and raises bars while touching on very complex, multi-layered, emotional issues in an intimate, cabaret-style stage that’s both straightforward and technically complex. There’s a lot to it.


While the show premiered May 24 (and runs through July 13) at the Fullerton theater, it’s been years in the making for Tong, and his close friend and co-star Michelle Hernandez, who plays Hedwig’s husband, Yizhak. 


“So I actually did this show 15 years ago at Theatre Out in Santa Ana,” Hernandez said. “Dennis and I have been friends … since I was 12 and he was 14. And he was in my very first show, he had done theater before that, but it was my very first show. And we played opposite each other. It was ‘The Little Mermaid’ at Broadway on tour … and we've been friends ever since, now almost 30 years later.”


Tong played Hedwig 12 years ago at the Costa Mesa Playhouse. But the two friends hadn’t performed together since all those years ago when they were children. 


“We have been kind of scheming about doing the show together since we were in different casts,” said Hernandez, who also serves as vocal director. “And so we thought, ‘Well, wouldn't it be great, you know, one day to be able to do that together?’ And so the Maverick finally gave us the opportunity to produce the show there.”


Tong, who also served as co-producer of the show, said he’s enjoyed returning to the role 12 years later and with much more life experience under his belt. 


“It is really cool to come back to the role years later and, you know, especially like having experienced so much life and stuff in between,” he said. “It's cool to come back and kind of see where, how I've grown and what I bring to the show now.”

Dennis Tong, left, plays Hedwig, and Michelle Hernandez, right, plays Yizhak, Hedwig’s husband, in "Hedwig and the Angry Inch" at the Maverick Theater. Photo by Austin Bauman, courtesy of Maverick Theater
Who is Hedwig? 

Punk rocker Hedwig Schmidt – formerly a young man named Hansel – left East Germany in pursuit of a better life in the West. Hedwig shares, sings and rocks out her complicated story of love, fame and betrayal during a performance in an American theater in 1998 (also when the musical opened off-Broadway) with her second husband, Yizhak, at her side and backed by her band, The Angry Inch. 


Tong – who also plays Dr. Frank-N-Furter in Maverick Theater’s “The Rocky Horror Show” – has some inspiration to draw from for his performance as Hedwig, including his own years as a drag performer. 


“My drag persona, her name is Miss Lucky 13,” Tong said. “I used to perform (a) couple nights a week in West Hollywood at the clubs there, performed and hosted a couple nights. The House of Blues at Downtown Disney is actually where I got my start.” 


Tong is a bit of a perfectionist when it comes to his drag look. For Hedwig, that means putting on big eyelashes, prominent eyebrows, blue eyeshadow and lots of glitter. 


“My process is kind of intense,” he said with a laugh. “I start makeup, by 5:30 (for an 8 p.m. show) …. Yeah, the transformation just takes forever and I'm a little bit of a perfectionist when it comes to all that, you know. I mean that's why we look so good.”


Heidi Newell, who owns the theater with show co-producer Brian Newell, served as costume designer, but Tong also had a say. 


“The costume I wear is actually from my original production,” Tong said. “But it is owned by the Maverick because they took over a lot of Costa Mesa Playhouse’s costumes a couple years ago.” 


He said the costume was tailored to him by a designer that has constructed all his drag costumes. 


“I added a ton more rhinestones and mirrors to it,” he said. “And just, you know, just zhuzhed it up to give it new life and more sparkle for this production.”


He said he was a big consultant on the drag aspect of the production. He had his “wig lady” work on his blonde wig for the show. 


“As a drag artist, I think, you know, sometimes we have a different point of view,” he said. “I might take it a little more extreme … just because I understand that kind of point of view.”


As layered as Tong’s Hedwig look appears, the emotional aspect of the role is even more so. 


“With Hedwig, it's, I would say … there is some flares of me, but Hedwig is on a completely different kind of journey,” Tong said. “She's following this giant rock star that she basically created, but he's getting all the credit for. So, yeah, you know, there's I guess in some ways, some of the bitterness that Frank (from ‘The Rocky Horror Show’) has and some of the edge of like just kind of wanting to be so in control of everything. That's kind of like where their similarities lie within me portraying both. But, you know, there's just so many layers to Hedwig because she's this punk-rock, rock-and-roll singer from East Germany. 


“She's trans but it's only really by situation … it's not a coming-of-age trans story in that sense. But like, you know, her story is so ridiculous. It just happens to be one of the other layers to her. But yeah, I mean, it's definitely the most, the toughest role I've ever had to take on only because it is such, there's so many layers to her. It's basically almost a one-person show … so many lines, so many songs.”


He said it’s a journey that really pushes him. 


“I feel like with Hedwig I get to just show so many, so many sides,” he said. “And just so many aspects of my talent, I guess, because she does push me to be really funny, obviously hold the show on my own. But also there's so many really tender moments, so many intimate moments in the show. And then on the other extreme, there’s big, energetic rock songs, but then there's like a lot of times where I have these big monologues just talking about her life and … it's really unlike any other role or show that I've ever done, even though I've done the show before one other time.”


PHOTO 1: From left: Chris Gage, Kobe Darby, Dennis Tong as Hedwig, and Michelle Hernandez in "Hedwig and the Angry Inch" at the Maverick Theater. PHOTO 2: Hernandez as Yizhak. PHOTO 3: Tong, seen from the back without a blond wig, as Hedwig. PHOTO 4: From left: Gage, Darby, Tong as Hedwig, Sho Fujieda on drums, and Hernandez as Yizhak. Photos by Austin Bauman, courtesy of Maverick Theater


A Collaboration 

Tong said the cast and production crew has really stepped up to make the show the best it can be. 


Hernandez praises Tong’s and director Juztine Tuazon-Martin’s attention to detail. An old-school projector is set up on the stage and managed by Hernandez, as Yizhak serves to display a variety of colorful imagery on the back of the stage to help enhance the vibrancy of the experience. 


In addition to director, Tuazon-Martin also serves as choreographer and projection designer.


“Dennis first approached me about directing this piece in early spring, knowing I had directed ‘Hedwig’ in San Diego in 2022. Dennis and I were roommates when I moved to Orange County in the early 2000s when we worked as performers at the Disneyland Resort. So we go way back,” Tuazon-Martin said. “Stephen Trask’s score (for ‘Hedwig and the Angry Inch’) is not only my favorite in the musical theater canon but also one of the best rock albums. I could work on this material over and over and still find new discoveries that bring me complete joy.”


Tuazon-Martin, whose pronouns are ze/zim/zir/zirs, said the musical holds special meaning.


“I first saw the off-Broadway production when I was in high school,” Tuazon-Martin said. “Ally Sheedy – yup, from ‘The Breakfast Club’ – starred in the title role. I was a punk/goth/musical theater nerd in complete denial of my queerness. ‘Hedwig’ was a musical that felt more like the underground punk shows I would go to than anything I’d ever seen in a theater. I was a teenager in the late ‘90s who had never seen queerness so proudly centered in any other way than the homonormativity depicted in ‘Will & Grace.’ Seeing Ally Sheedy, an AFAB (assigned female at birth) woman playing an AMAB (assigned male at birth) person existing outside binary genders, really opened my mind.” 


Tuazon-Martin loves the intimacy of the Maverick Theater’s space. 


“I wanted the show to feel like Hedwig was invading the space, as if she was putting on a show without permission,” Tuazon-Martin said. “Brian Newell’s set design captures the feel of a theater’s storage area that perhaps Hedwig found and took over for her and her band’s concert. There is a lot of Maverick history on that stage, and fans will see some pieces from their favorite shows on the Hedwig set. 


“I wanted all the special effects to seem like they were coming from items that would be found in a theater storage space. We utilized things like an old-fashioned overhead projector and a carpet dryer to create queer/punk-style spectacle, mostly implemented on stage by Yizhak played by Michelle Hernandez. I also took inspiration from queer icons such as Tony Kushner and Keith Haring.” 


Tuazon-Martin worked with longtime collaborator and spouse Shaun Tuazon-Martin to create a multi-sensory experience. 


“Directing Dennis has been fantastic. He is at home in front of an audience and combines his theater experience with his experience doing drag in queer spaces to create an honest, layered performance. Hedwig is an extremely demanding role, and Dennis took on its challenges with grace,” Tuazon-Martin said. 


“I also cannot forget to mention Michelle Hernandez as our fabulous Yizhak. Many people overlook that role as the background, secondary character that sings here and there, but in our production I wanted Yizhak to be extremely involved in Hedwig’s world and I wanted to really highlight and develop their complex relationship. Michelle took on this role like a true professional and expertly handles all the elements I’ve thrown at her.”


Hernandez said this is a show that means a lot to a lot of people and performing it during Pride Month is an honor. Tuazon-Martin does hope a message comes through. 


“‘Hedwig’ celebrates queerness, drag and the defiance of binary normativity,” Tuazon-Martin said. “It’s also a ferocious punk concert and I hope people come to rock out, rage and feel seen when they experience ‘Hedwig and the Angry Inch.’”


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