Thirty years after her first arena tour, a live performance by Madonna is still an event, a pilgrimmage for generations of the faithful.
And so on Saturday night, they came to Miami’s AmericanAirlines Arena to worship, a parade of supplicants in search of transformation, regeneration and a party. They came in old Madonna tour T-shirts and new (“Bitch I’m Madonna), gray hair and gay hair, a parade of women defying the 56-degree chill in taut leather pants, and men in impossibly skinny jeans. There were nuns and cheerleaders, even a random Pagliacci. Everywhere the community documented its glee with the selfie.
And Madonna did not disappoint, her arrival (at a relatively punctual 10:25 p.m.) coming in a slow descent from the ceiling in a cage, landing among a menacing battalion of bare-chested soldiers. She exited her enclosure in flowing black and red robes to the tune of a new song, “Iconic,” as the video, featuring an angry Mike Tyson, unfurled on a massive video screen that ran the length of the stage.
It was a tone that would rule the evening: Plenty of theater, fashion and energy, and less skin than we are used to seeing from Madonna.
Accompanied by a guitarist, drummer, a keyboardist, DJ and as many as 20 dancers on a stage with a catwalk that ran the length of the arena floor, the 57-year-old singer performed for more than two hours in a set that balanced music from her 2015 album “Rebel Heart,” with medleys of old favorites and one only-in-Miami surprise.
“Illuminati” and “Holy Water,” the two Kanye West songs on “Rebel Heart,” were represented, the latter a signature performance with Madonna strutting the catwalk with a phalanx of dancers in incomplete nuns’ habits and white panties who soon mounted a line of stripper poles. During the song, Madonna herself proved that she can still quickly scale a stripper pole. A heartwarming moment.
The crowd lapped up the high-energy provocativeness of Diplo’s “Bitch I’m Madonna” and “Unapologetic Bitch,” with Madonna accompanied on the latter by her daughter Mercy James. After giving a shout-out to all the “unapologetic bitches” out there, Madonna led the audience in a singing of “Happy Birthday” to Mercy James, who turned 10 with an onstage cupcake. An odd moment.
Fans of her older music were well served by poignant readings of “La Isla Bonita” and “True Blue,” with the Madonna solo on acoustic guitar. These songs, and a charming version of Edith Piaf’s “La Vie en Rose,” displayed a sturdy, clear voice that is elsewhere obscured in layers of technology for the club-oriented songs.
Dressed in colorful skirts and hats that vaguely suggested Frida Kahlo, Madonna and dancers did a spirited, flamenco-style medley of “Dress You Up (In My Love),” “Into the Groove” and “Lucky Star,” which drew a long standing ovation. “Like a Virgin” later was offered in an industrial mix, in which she showed off the old dance moves and, once over-heated, finally revealed some cleavage.
The singer seemed to relish this first show in Miami, where the tour was to have opened last summer (it will be repeated at AmericanAirlines Arena Sunday night).
“Me and Miami, we go way back,” she said to an avalanche of applause. Looking down in the audience, she called out some celebrity friends from the old days: “I see you Rosie, and Ingrid, Gloria … and Emilio.”
After returning to her acoustic guitar for a version of “Who’s That Girl?” – filling the darkened arena with a galaxy of cell-phone lights – she brought the house down with the first few words of her surprise: “It won't be easy, you'll think it strange …” The crowd stood and sang along throughout “Don’t Cry for Me, Agentina,” from her 1996 film about Eva Peron,“Evita.”
Madonna seemed genuinely touched by the response to a song that represents “a watershed moment in my life.”
“I’ve been dying to do that song for the entire tour, and that’s the first time I’ve done it,” she told the crowd, reminding them that Peron was “a woman of power, a woman who was controversial… Damn it, Eva Peron was a rebel heart!”