Most of San Diego's ever-growing crop of aspiring musical comedy performers get their first taste of professional theater as chorus kids in Starlight shows. Then, with a few local successes to buoy their hopes, they move on to try to carve a niche on the Great White Way.

Not Clark Sterling. This native San Diegan reversed the process.

Sterling made his mark on Broadway, starring in "Seven Brides for Seven Brothers," and landed roles on TV's daytime soaps, before ever auditioning for a Starlight show. Thursday night, when "South Pacific" begins a 10-day run at the Starlight Bowl in Balboa Park, Sterling will finally be home, appearing with the San Diego Civic Light Opera Assn.

The 30-year-old actor will play the part of Lt. Joseph Cable, the idealistic young officer who falls in love with a South Seas native.

"I never got to do a Starlight show as I was growing up," Sterling said in a recent interview. "I was too busy with school, so I never auditioned. When I went up to Los Angeles seven or eight years ago, they (Starlight) weren't using much talent from L.A., and there weren't any roles right for me later. But I had sure seen a lot of Starlight shows in my childhood, and I always wanted to do one."

Sterling couldn't have wished for a better vehicle for his Starlight debut. "South Pacific" is one of the few musicals in theatrical history to be awarded the coveted Pulitzer Prize for drama. Its score by Rodgers and Hammerstein includes "Some Enchanted Evening," "I'm Gonna Wash That Man Right Out of My Hair," "Bali Ha'i" and "There Is Nothing Like a Dame."

As the show's romantic lead, Sterling sings "Younger Than Springtime" and "You've Got to Be Taught," a put-down of prejudice.

"I like being a leading man. But Joseph Cable is a very demanding singing role--a very high singing role," he said. "I have a great vocal teacher and I've really been working hard preparing for the role."

This romantic lead often comes across as superficial, one-dimensional and saccharine, but Sterling is guarding against those pitfalls.

"I want to make Cable believable and human," he said. "He and Nellie (Forbush, the bubbly American nurse) represent the conflict of the show. It's about prejudice, and (as the song says), 'You've got to be carefully taught' to hate people because of their color or creed."

Sterling has his parents (who still reside in Kensington) to thank for tuning him into this plum role at Starlight.

"I've been living in New York, but I have a built-in spy, or maybe I should say P.R. person, in my parents. My mom sent me a clipping about the show, and I've always longed to do Cable--and to appear in a Starlight show," he said.

Not the least of Starlight's fascinations for Sterling is the local phenomenon of stopping the show when aircraft zoom overhead--a solution to sonic interference that could be an actor's nightmare.

"I've watched the planes fly over the bowl, and I've always wondered how they (the cast) adapt to air traffic. I'm looking forward to trying--and I think there ought to be some way to put it (the experience) on my resume," he said, laughing.

As Lt. Cable, Sterling won't have a chance to flaunt the dancing skills he honed during his days at Stanford, where he earned a bachelor's degree in political science. But Sterling is hoping for other opportunities to demonstrate his versatility in front of a hometown crowd.

"I did a lot of tap dancing in a production of 'Dames at Sea' that was taped for the Lincoln Center archives. So I'm preserved as a tapper," he joked. "But I like to do a lot of everything. I'm primarily a musical theater actor, and I prefer roles that incorporate singing, dancing and acting. But sometimes, you can only get two out of the three."

Sterling performed in public school productions through high school. He was a member of the "Fiddler on the Roof" cast when Don Ward choreographed the show (with a professional Tevya) for San Diego High School. Sterling appeared professionally in San Diego a few years ago in the now-defunct Lyric Theater's production of "Dames at Sea"--also staged by Ward, the Starlight's co-artistic director.

What's in store for this ex-San Diegan after his brief stint at Starlight?

"I don't know. This season and next, most everything (on Broadway) is coming from London, and I'm not that type of dancer. Shows like 'Cats' and 'Starlight Express' present so many challenges. You have to be very specific in your abilities, and it's getting harder to be well-rounded. I do a little of everything--show dancing, tap, country-Western and jazz, but not real technical ballet," he noted.

Although Sterling has come a long way in a short time in the unstable world of show business, he does have that degree from Stanford to fall back on.

"I still have political interests," he said, "and I'd like to be involved with politics. But right now, I'm happy as an actor. I always wanted to be able to support myself as an actor, and I finally can."

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