There were tears. There were complaints about tardiness. And there were many, many Madonna hits.
Before Thursday night, Madonna hadn’t performed in Philadelphia since way back in 2019. That’s when she brought her oh-so-problematic Madame X show to the Met on North Broad Street. In a review titled “A Beautiful Failure,” I rightfully savaged that Madonna show, and Madonna troll-fans savaged me for weeks on social media. She brings quite an army.
Then, last January, Madonna announced a slew of dates for a new tour, the Celebration Tour, which was positioned, essentially, as a greatest hits tour. And in the case of Madonna and based on what she did with Madame X, a greatest-hits tour was exactly what Madonna needed.
The only problem was, Philadelphia wasn’t on the list of stops for Madonna’s Celebration Tour. It appeared that she snubbed us. But then in March 2023, Madonna decided to add a show at the Wells Fargo Center in Philadelphia, scheduled for December 20th. Except then she postponed her tour, which was supposed to start over the summer, due to illness. And so December 20th became January 25th, a.k.a. Thursday night.
But even then, it was a little bit unclear when Madonna would actually perform. She’s notoriously late to take the stage. People are, believe it or not, suing her over this. Printing an 8 p.m. showtime on the ticket was kind of a joke. She went on around 9:30 p.m. at a recent New York show. 9:45 p.m. in Montreal. But would she push even later for Philly? In fact, she did.
Just after 4:35 p.m. on Thursday, Madonna took to Facebook with this curious message: “Philly! Due to the current weather conditions, please note that tonight’s show may start slightly later than originally scheduled to make sure you can be all on time for the Celebration. See you there!!” Naturally, this message resulted in a lot of questions to the effect of Wait, what weather?
In any event, 9 p.m. came and went. Then came 9:30. At 9:45 p.m., a friend from Delco told me via text, “If she goes on after 10, I’m leaving and never coming to see her again.” Well, the clock struck 10. A rumor started spreading that the show wasn’t going to start until 11 p.m. But then … it happened. At 10:06 p.m. on the dot, out came Madonna.
And what came next was a whirlwind performance involving countless special effects, wild stagecraft, and superhuman dancers. The show was Madonna’s attempt to tell her life story through her music and lots and lots of video. She paid tribute to many icons, including Michael Jackson (some have questioned the appropriateness of this due to the pedophilia allegations), Nina Simone, David Bowie, and Freddie Mercury, among others. The performance is segmented into seven — yes, seven! — acts. And she includes plenty of hits. There are also some B-sides for the true Madonna nerds.
So what did the people who attended the Madonna Celebration Tour show in Philly actually think? I surveyed a range to get an idea.
South Street tattoo artist Noah Webster has seen more concerts than most people, here and the world over. But this was actually his first Madonna show. He took his significant other. “We loved it,” Webster told me after the show had ended. “We kept saying it was like a flawless illusion produced by Salvador Dali and David Copperfield. Costume changes just happened. Scene changes were seamless. At the end, you could tell she was a little tired, along with the audience. But it was an impressive production, and we were very happy to see a retrospective of her life as our first Madonna concert.”
Webster snagged this video of Like a Prayer that shows off some of the stagecraft spectacles involved during the evening.
Graduate Hospital painter and author Jenny Laden brought her teenage daughter Izzy to Thursday night’s Madonna concert. “I found it astonishing,” Laden told me. “At times moving and sometimes confounding. A whole tribute to people who died from AIDS, while she sang Live to Tell. Gorgeous. She’s still raunchy as hell and fearless… She’s such an icon, and it’s hard to believe how much ground she broke. At one point, she said something along the lines of, ‘No one is more surprised than me that I’m still here.’” Izzy said the concert made her want to learn more about Madonna and her work and history.
“I think I got my money’s worth,” said Jawnville.com publisher Greg Caputo, who paid $220 for club box tickets earlier this week. “I will say that she was having a hard time with some of the dancing due to an apparent leg injury. [She suffered similar problems in the Madame X tour.] She originally had that tape on her leg, but by the end of the show, it was a neoprene brace. But the other dancers and the choreographers do a good job of covering up for her. I’ve never been to a Broadway show, but this was what I’d imagine a Broadway show to be. But with great music by Madonna. If I had to sum it up in three thoughts: lots of leather pants. Lots of lace. And lots of moms drinking hard seltzer.”
“I’ve caught every tour except for the one in ’87 at the Vet,” longtime South Philly Madonna fan Peter Kourahanis told me. “I bought nosebleed tickets for $90 for this one, and I snuck down closer to the stage. And for some reason, the row I sat, there were six empty seats. Third row … Last night was amazing. I got emotional. She wasn’t as high-energy as before, but who is? The production was just wow.”
Talk about close. This video — which appears to show Madonna spitting into the crowd before dousing them with beer — shows you just how close Kourahanis was.
“A love letter to the gay community” is how Philly artist Natalie Hope McDonald described it. “A performance-art piece. It’s as much a look back at her life as it is an ongoing commentary about the world. One of the best shows I have ever seen. She’s incredible. … The most powerful moment went from the early days in NYC through the AIDS crisis. Friends of friends who died that multiplied into so many faces projected onto screens. Tears were running down my face. It brought that time back.”
If you missed Madonna’s show in Philadelphia, all hope is not lost. The real fans among you might want to get up to Madison Square Garden on Monday, where tickets start at around $250. That’s the closest location for the remaining dates on the tour, which runs through April.