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Royale Polynesian Revue rings in the New Year with tropical twist

Pesi Maug(from left) with dancers Susan Kinney Debbie Ierome KristBellamiPesi Mauga’s Royal Polynesian Revue will be performing Chef Shangri-LNorth Riverside

Pesi Mauga (from left) with dancers Susan Kinney, Debbie Ierome and Kristin Bellamia of Pesi Mauga’s Royal Polynesian Revue will be performing at Chef Shangri-La in North Riverside on New Year’s Eve. | Buzz Orr~Sun-Times Media

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WONDERLUAU’ — Pesi’S royale
polynesian revue

† 5 and 9:30 p.m. Dec. 31

† Chef Shangri-La, 7930 W. 26th St., North Riverside

† No cover; reservations highly recommended
† (708) 442-7080;

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Updated: December 28, 2011 5:09PM

There are few secrets anymore as America blogs and tweets itself into a new year.

But the hidden stories of Pesi’s Royale Polynesian Revue inform a colorful and culturally meaningful show. The long time Chicago-based troupe will appear at 5 and 9:30 p.m. New Year’s Eve in a “Winter Wonderluau” at the Chef Shangri-La in North Riverside — not far from Brookfield Zoo!

Only in Chicagoland.

The six-member group will perform, as revelers dine on house specialties such as Tahitian Mango Passion Pipi (beef stir fry with sliced mangoes, peppers and white onions simmered in a mango sauce, $12.95). No pre-fixed menu; no cover charge.

The revue is led by Pesi Mauga, a striking white-haired native of Samoa (pop. 180,000). Imagine a cross between country singer Charlie Rich and Don Ho and you catch Mauga’s tropical drift.

Mauga is the emcee. He also strums the ukelele, sings “Tiny Bubbles” to pre-recorded tracks and spins a two-foot-long fire knife. He also plays the traditional Tahitian to’ere bass drum made from hollowed-out logs. Using a hand and a stick, the drum beats signal the step changes for the dancers.

By day, the dancers are students, a social worker and massage therapist. For the past 25 years, Mauga has worked maintenance for the Salvation Army in Des Plaines.

“I’m a massage therapist at a wellness clinic,” said dancer Susan Kinney, who performs under the name of “Kealana” (“awakening”).

“I’m a little shy about it. I never invite them (co-workers). I see it a lot nowadays of people having secret lives behind their day jobs. They are following their passions. Maybe during the day I’m homely but at night give me my coconut bras and red lipstick.”

Kinney, 34, will be one of four beautiful women along with Mauga’s nephew dancing in the revue at “The Chef,” as locals call it. Among those are Debbie Ierome, who performs as “Tiare” (“Tahitian flower”) and Kristin Bellamia, “Aulelei,” (“beautiful”). Ierome, 22, is a client-relations manager at a South Loop consulting firm on diversity and inclusion. Bellamia, 21, is a full-time business marketing student at Northeastern Illinois University and works for a bank. And it’s not uncommon for Kinney to give her fellow dancers a massage before the show to keep them limber.

Escapism sets the ambience for the Royale Polynesian Revue.

After a brief rehearsal at The Chef, Mauga called for a Mai Tai and said, “Some people never get a chance to go to Tahiti or Hawaii. We bring the islands to them.”

Mauga, 59, began performing in the early 1970s in Honolulu. He is 6’2” and weighs 245 pounds. He wears a yellow lei and a necklace made of kukui nuts. In 1973 Mauga became a dancer and drummer in his sister Otila’s revue at the Hawaiian Inn in Daytona Beach, Fla. In 1979 he moved to Chicago, where he headlined at the now-defunct Shanghai Lil’s (owned by Polish immigrants) on North Milwaukee Avenue. That is about as far away from Samoa as you can go.

Mauga is the youngest of nine children. His parents were plantation farmers in western Samoa. He wears a huge black Samoan pea’ tattoo on his right shoulder and part of his right chest, which denotes “family.”

It’s challenging for Mauga to absorb the influences of the younger members of his troupe.

“They always want to learn new stuff,” he said with a yellow plumeria flower lying behind his right ear. (For the revue, that flower denotes he’s single, but in his real life he is married to Susie, who co-produces the revue.)

Ierome explained, “There has been major change in the last five years in all the Polynesian dance styles. New choreography, new music with techno and current pop songs. We’ve incorporated Beyonce songs into our repertoire. We’ve been evolving the show.”

Kinney added, “When the first people came to Hawaii, it was a different type of hula than people see now. Back then there were more traditional chants and drumming, which is kahiko (hula composed prior to 1893). Then you have something more modern, which is auana, which may use a guitar or ukelele. We like modern and traditional. We try to do all of it.”

The troupe will perform two 75-minute shows on New Year’s Eve.

“We try hard to represent the best we can,” Ierome said. “We bring in kumu (teachers of hulu) from Hawaii for workshops [at] hotels in Naperville and Indiana. Everyone comes away learning more about the culture and the dance, more than you would imagine.” (Her revue works with the Hula Association of the Midwest in Lombard.)

Each island is idenitified by a style of dance, Mauga added. “In Tahiti the girls shake their hips. In Hawaii, the hands. In Samoa, it’s more of everything — hands, feet, eyes. In New Zealand we do the poi balls (air tricks with baseball-sized balls attached to a strings) and the haka (war cry).”

Most of the dancers make their own outfits with organic materials. They wear traditional Tahitian pareo wraps and Samoan lava-lava wraps. “A lot of feathers are in our costuming,” Kinney said with a warm smile. “We order material from Hawaii; puka and mother-of-pearl (Tahitian) shells. Tropical plants could be expensive. Sometimes we go with artificial. We have winter here.”

But winter never comes around Pesi’s Royale Polynesian Revue.

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