People, people we must accessorize! We need skimpy camisoles emblazoned with American flags. We need fluffy racoon tails, hitched like key chains to denim bell bottoms. We could use a black Japanese kimono with 50-foot detachable sleeves. Anyone know a pimp with an extra leopard skin overcoat?
Get busy because we’ve got some shopping to do. Our lives might have seemed full enough before the lights dimmed on Friday night at the MCI Center, but 105 minutes and umpteen costume changes later, Madonna’s Drowned World Tour proved otherwise. We’re underdressed. We lack cool props, like samurai swords, fake hay bales and a mechanical bull. And we need an entourage of super-buff gymnasts who can get gymnasty dangling upside down in mid-air, wearing nothing but a thong and a frown.
Madonna brought all of this and more to MCI on Friday night, and she produced seamless musical theater that gripped through sheer, choreographed exertion. Since last she toured, the software of concert technology has been upgraded a few times, mostly as a result of the ‘N Sync vs. Backstreet Boys competition for the love and summer job money of teen pop fans. Madonna eyed the mark set by these whippersnappers and jumped past it by a yard or two.
She would have landed even another yard or two ahead if the show had kicked off anywhere close to its 8 p.m. start. Instead, it was an hour and 45 minutes late. As she explained in an apology near the show’s climax, our heroine was stuck for hours in a plane somewhere far from Washington, grounded by the torrential rain of Friday afternoon.
The wait for showtime, unfortunately, was a moist and sticky ordeal because the air conditioning near the stage was turned off during the wait, which made parts of MCI swelter. For $253 a seat, you’d think they’d throw in a little fresh air, gratis. Caresse Henry, Madonna’s manager said in a phone interview Saturday that the AC is always off at the start of the Drowned show, to prevent the concert-opening stage smoke from suffocating the audience. But given the length of the delay, she added, Center staffers should have kept the room frosty until the production started.
The delay and the humidity were quickly forgiven. Focusing almost exclusively on her last two albums, Music and Ray Of Light, Drowned begins, oddly enough, in Scotland after it’s been hit by a hydrogen bomb. Or maybe we’re in a part of Edinburgh where post-apocalyptic punk got hot again, but nobody could bear to surrender their flannels. Madonna arrived sporting a black and white kilt, and was slowly shuttled forth on a platform billowing with an ankle-high shroud of legend-enhancing fog.
Somebody has been teaching Madonna to play the guitar, and by the third number, Candy Perfume Girl, she was having a Metallica moment, soloing with an electric six-string perched on a thigh. Her fret-work has an endearing play-it-by-numbers quality, like she’s memorized exactly where to put her fingers, and when. She strums, in other words, a little like she curses. After her solo, when she climbed back on top of her riser and shouted a 12-letter expletive, it was as though reading from script: “Shock crowd with naughty word here.”
There’s plenty of sex in this show. Some of the more limber back up singers have bummed moves from strip-clubs, while Madonna does a few of the compulsory crotch grabs and some floorboard grinding. But the erotic dial has been turned down a little on this tour to allow for a bit of mock violence — at one point Madonna pretends to kill a guy with a rifle,one of the show’s most idiotic moments — and some story-telling drama.
The most elaborate of these narratives came in the second part of the show, all of which unfolded in the figurative Far East. After surviving a brush with an angry, blade-wielding samurai, (a close call set to the tune of Nobody’s Perfect), Madonna moved the action to China and became an air-walking kung-fu warrior, straight out of “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.” With the help of some bungee chords, she and a few lady friends knocked the stuffing out of some of the male back-up dancers. With a good dozen players bounding around and scissor-kicking, this has to be the first pop music production with an air traffic control problem. Country and Western Madonna showed up next, sitting alone at the front of the stage, strumming an acoustic guitar in a cowgirl hat and embroidered jeans for I Deserve It. Like a lot of the cuts from Music, her last album, I Deserve It is a threadbare ditty, comprised of little more than guitar and a vaporous beat, a sound better suited to a mid-sized rave than a 20,000-seat arena. In concert, these and other Music numbers werebulked up by the band, which was given a higher profile than you might have expected given how few instruments are on the album. The dancers helped too, turning Don’t Tell Me into what looked like a line dance in a leather bar. For Human Nature that mechanical bull appeared and spun Madonna up, down and sideways in a lascivious slow grind.
Before the night was over there were stops in Spain, with Madonna dolled up like a matador’s wife, for a Spanish rendering of What It Feels Like For A Girl. Then onto Pimp Madonna, who strutted in a fur and urged the audience to scream “ho” each time she screamed “pimp,” then segued into Holiday, her only oldie of the evening.
The song selection made clear that Madonna won’t peddle nostalgia to sell seats. Aside from flashes of her former selves on a video screen, little was made of her previous incarnations. Her fans are now divided fairly evenly between gays, 24-year-olds, women who discovered Madonna in high school and a wide variety of adults who remember Lucky Star and the ragamuffin of Desperately Seeking Susan. She’s ceded the teenagers, it seems, to the likes of Britney. That might explain why there was a buyer’s market for tickets outside the MCI before the show, where seats were going for as little as $25.
Hitch-free and painstakingly professional, the show impressed not merely by fielding more dancers and niftier gadgetry than any rivals working the circus-end of the pop world. Madonna, as importantly, has no fear of the ridiculous. She never winks. She never implicitly says, “Yes, this is pretty silly, huh? Here I am, a 43-year-old mother from Michigan, dressed as a geisha and pretending to plead for my life before an Asian dude with a sword.” Even during the campiest bits on Friday night — like the Meiji-era material, which ranked right up there — she’s basically deadpan.
Entertainment is her religion, and she could no sooner laugh at herself than the pope could giggle at his hat. Our job, as disciples, is to marvel at the production values of her sermons and have a good time. And if we could buy a cowboy fel that ($70) or a “Too Fresh” camouflage camosole ($29.95) at the concession stand, we’ll save ourselves a trip to the mall.