First a tea cup, then stardom

Jul 12

Remember the name James Zongus. You just might be able to say you knew him when.

Though only 12 years old, James, a Foster City resident, has been performing for nearly a decade, and his story is strikingly familiar if you know the song “I Can Do That” from A Chorus Line.

Like the kid in the song, James would follow his two older sisters to dance class, and at age 3, he all but demanded to share the stage with his sisters in The Nutcracker.

“I was at a rehearsal and said, `I want to be in the show!’ So they cast me in a little part,” James recalls. “I got to walk across the stage and do a little bit of dancing. After that I just kept on going.”

James played Oliver in Oliver! with the Bay Area Educational Theatre Company in San Mateo, and last year he was one of the king’s children in the The King and I at American Musical Theatre of San Jose.

When Bowditch Middle School, where James will be in the eighth grade come September, joined with two other schools to produce Disney’s Beauty and the Beast, James played the role of Chip, the tea cup son of Mrs. Potts, the tea pot.

Like Olivier returning to the role of Hamlet, James will once again essay Chip, only this time for Broadway by the Bay.

For his audition, he found a song he thought would be good for Beauty and the Beast, what with its singing and dancing flatware and furniture.

“I sang `Hey, Look Me Over’ because the song has the words `rose’ and `spoon’ and `fork’ in it,” James explains. “It went really well. They laughed.”

In this production, which opens Saturday at the San Mateo Performing Arts Center, James, like all the Chips before him, appears to be a tea cup-encased head on a rolling cart. There’s a bit of stage magic involved in Chip’s appearance, but James won’t give away the secret.

When asked if it’s a comfortable way to perform, he will say this: “It’s not comfortable. No way.”

But he’s enjoying working on the show and with Tracy Chiappone, who plays his mother.

“She’s very nice and easy to work with and gives me good advice,” James says.

James’ real mom, Joanne Zongus, says having a performer in the family requires the support of the entire family for both logistical and emotional reasons.

“We told him we’d make the commitment if he was willing to make the commitment and keep his grades up between a 3.5 and 3.8 and keep himself healthy and keep his commitment to his family,” Joanne says. “He’s done really well. I don’t know where he gets it. Neither his father nor I can be in front of a group of people. We’re very proud of him.”

So far, acting is just James’ hobby. Part of his agreement with his parents is that he make sure he’s a well-rounded person.

“In school, James does sports like basketball and golf,” Joanne says. “He serves on the altar for church. It’s a mind-body-soul kind of thing. We feel it’s important that all parts of you are well-rounded.”

James says theater isn’t all that cool in middle school, but in high school, especially if he gets his wish and ends up, like his twin older sisters, at theater-friendly San Mateo High School, the cool factor may improve.

“I feel like in high school, theater will be just something I like to do and no one will judge me for it,” James says.

From there, James has an interesting plan.

“I know it’s really hard to get to Broadway,” he says. “So I’ll get a good college education and then a really steady job — I like construction and architecture; I love to build stuff — then I’ll retire early and do shows at least twice a year.”

James’ practical attitude toward show business was shaped, in part, by his experience doing The King and I at AMTSJ.

Says James’ mom: “Doing that show, I think it dawned on him what it meant to perform professionally. There were a lot of New York actors there who had left their families behind, and … it can be kind of hard.”

James says the hardest part of that show was balancing rehearsal, performance, school work and the commute from Foster City to San Jose.

“I barely made it through,” James says. “But when I’d get to the theater, it was so much fun, and the sets were so intricate and everything that I forgot about everything else and had a wonderful experience.”

Broadway by the Bay’s Beauty and the Beast continues through July 29 at the San Mateo Performing Arts Center, 600 N. Delaware St., San Mateo. Shows are at 8 p.m. Thursdays-Saturdays; 2 p.m. Sundays; plus 2 p.m. July 21 and 28. Tickets are $17 to $42. Call (650) 579-5565 or visit www.broadwaybythebay.org.

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