May 25, 2004
By Darryl Morden
Bottom line: With a greatest hits show, the pop icon is political and playful, while her once upfront challenges to sexuality stays in the background. (The Forum, Inglewood, Calif.Monday, May 24)
She calls it "Re-Invention," but it's just as much a rediscovery of Songs for herself and the fans, as Madonna opened her new world tour with a Show that was big on production but also had some heart.
Taking the stage after a quirky video remix of "The Beast Within," delivering quotes from the Bible targeting makers of violence and war, with images of Madonna in a white powdered wig and clothing circa 17th or 18th century, she surfaced for real from beneath the stage, joined by her dancers for her 1990s hit "Vogue," followed by the newer, rhythmic confessional "Nobody Knows Me."
These days, Madonna is more politically and spiritually provocative, rather than taking on sexual taboos -- though she managed that through her use of various video imagery. The title song from her current album "American Life" was a massive antiwar production piece, helicopters and firebombing on the giant screens behind her as she moved with her troupe, all clad in fatigues. The song is entrenched in a harrowing theme, but the staging was too Over the top. She found release in the sheer joy of the next number, "Express Yourself," which upped the energy level in the sold-out arena.
Perhaps knowing that, at 45, she Can't prance around girlie and teasing as she did two decades back, Madonna strapped on an electric guitar for a rocking version of "Burning Up," while in the sly "Material Girl," she added after one of the choruses, "I'm not, really." And There's no doubt she's a fascinating dichotomy: a wealthy estate landowner battling incursions back home in England, while also seeking new levels of spiritual enlightenment.
Madonna's well-publicized involvement in the Judaic mysticism of the Kabbalah appeared in the form of Hebrew letters and symbols several times on the screens. A semi-acoustic section of songs included a powerful "Like a Prayer," where the connection with the audience singing the chorus loudly made for a climactic moment. Traditional religion was rejected in "Mother Father," then came an earnest reading of "Imagine," drawing roars when John Lennon's picture appeared and the song ended with the image of two boys-- one Jewish, the other Arabic -- walking off in friendship and understanding.
She gave fans the perhaps expected array of costume changes and some lively choreography that shows the younger-generation pop darlings how it can really be done with some substance as well. But Madonna actually didn't dance that much herself, instead creating the illusion with skilled and well-placed moves here and there. Her best foils weren't her dancers but her two strong backing singers: longtime friend Donna De Lory and onetime Michael Jackson duet partner Siedah Garrett. Despite some big arrangements, the band was rarely heavy handed and often managed to keep even the dance music-based numbers from sounding mechanical.
A blare of bagpipes and a corps of martial drums gave way to the celebration of "Into the Groove," still one of her truest numbers. For "Papa don't Preach," she wore a black T-shirt that read "Kabbalists Do It Better" and later tossed it into reaching hands on the floor. She dedicated the ballad "Crazy for You" to everyone who'd stuck by her for more than 20 years,
Then closed in a party mode with the electronic herky-jerk of "Music" from a few years back melding into "Holiday," her top 40 breakthrough in 1983, taking everyone back to where it began.
Although the new show is entertaining and at times even engaging at deeper levels, one while wonders about a possible tour at some point with just Madonna, her band and singers, without the extreme production trappings and terpsichorean flock. She's certainly a skilled enough writer and performer that most of her songs can stand alone and shine without the
window-dressing theatrics, even if the fans do eat it up.