Central Valley

Modesto native enjoying kooky, spooky role in Broadway's 'The Addams Family'

They're creepy and they're kooky, mysterious and spooky, they're altogether oooky, and Morgan James is one of them.

The 1999 Johansen High School graduate, formerly known as Morgan Grunerud, is in the ensemble of the new Broadway musical "The Addams Family."

She plays a jilted bride who is one of the ancestors of the famously morbid family, and she appears on stage with stars Nathan Lane ("The Birdcage") and Bebe Neuwirth ("Cheers").

The musical is based on the original 1930s comics by Charles Addams rather than the "Addams Family" 1960s TV series or 1990s movies. But the stage show, written by Marshall Brickman, Rick Elice (book) and Andrew Lippa (music and lyrics), does include the TV show's theme song, complete with finger snaps.

While the new show received generally poor reviews from critics, it has been a hit with audiences, drawing brisk ticket sales. It also nabbed Tony Award nominations on Tuesday for best original score and best featured actor (Kevin Chamberlin as Uncle Fester).

James has been with the musical since the fall trial run in Chicago and just finished recording the soundtrack with the rest of the cast.

"I feel great," she said in a phone interview from New York. "I love the place the show went to. It's changed a lot and my role has changed a lot. I have a lot more fun than I used to."

The changes are typical for new Broadway musicals. Creators often revise shows considerably between the time they do a trial run and before they open in New York City.

James' unnamed character and the rest of the Addams ancestors help drive the action and cause mischief.

"My character is always crying," she said. "The makeup is always wet, so it looks like I've been crying the whole show."

This is James' Broadway debut, and it's a lot more challenging than she expected. She performs eight shows a week and rehearses all day Thursdays and Fridays to prepare as an understudy for the lead roles of Wednesday and Alice (she hasn't gone on in the parts yet). "I guess I didn't anticipate what a relentless schedule it is," she said. "It looks easy from the outside."

Her work involves puppetry, dance and fencing. "It's a very difficult physical show," she told The Bee in the fall.

Being in a Broadway show has brought her new opportunities, including free tickets to events and close-up views of famous people. First lady Michelle Obama and children Sasha and Malia recently attended a performance.

James' family no longer lives in Modesto, but she still has friends in the area, and some, including her voice teacher Dawn Peterson, have seen the show. She credits Peterson as well as her parents -- former Johansen drama teacher Allen Grunerud and former Modesto Junior College speech and communication teacher Shellie Harwood -- for helping her get where she is today. "I decided (performance) was what I wanted to do, and they didn't doubt me for a second," she said.

James performed with Townsend Opera Players ("Secret Garden," "Hansel and Gretel") and Modesto Performing Arts ("Bye Bye Birdie," "A Little Night Music"). Petersen was instrumental in helping prepare her for Juilliard, where she earned a bachelor's degree in voice.

James said she loves working with her castmates and considers them part of her family. She would love to stay with the show for some time if that's possible. "You just have no idea," she said. "You don't know how long the show is going to run. It's a luxury to have a show that has the opportunity to stay open."

For more on area arts, watch Bee Scene on video at videos.modbee.com.