Further confirming my half-baked yet deeply entrenched theory that you can tell a lot about a concert by the contents of the performer’s merch table, Madonna’s appearance at Rogers Arena Wednesday night was calculatedly provocative, fantastic to look at and a little confusing.
While swag hags had their choice of a host of high and lowbrow goodies such as underwear, makeup cases and tote bags, the most bewildering item of the bunch was a highly flammable, fleece blanket. Even more bewildering was my friend Shawn plopping down $75 on said comforter just so his geriatric cat Max could sleep out the rest of his months on Madge’s enlarged, black-and-white face. There was also a sold-out “Bitch” shot glass for $10, a completely serviceable red “Rebel Heart” Tour tank top for $45 and a basic white T-shirt with “Bitch I’m Madonna” emblazoned across the front clocking in at a cool $70. Apparently sleeves and swear words are a premium.
But what about the actual show? To her credit, and perhaps detriment, Madonna refused to play the role of human jukebox, relying heavily on her latest album, Rebel Heart, which by all indications is not too shabby. An opening video montage, inexplicably showcasing the acting talents of a very angry, very sweaty and largely incomprehensible Mike Tyson, seemed to imply we are all slaves in a post-apocalyptic hellscape where a bloodied and beaten Madonna has been captured but is about to lead a dance-filled rebellion against a backdrop of religious iconography and S&M images culled from her 1992 Sex coffee table book.
Descending from the rafters in — surprise, surprise — a cage, Madonna and her army of agile dancers, acrobats and musicians proceeded to put on a clinic on how to pull off large-scale song-and-dance numbers, intricate choreography, seamless costume changes and Cirque du Soleil-like spectacle.
At 57, Madonna is still far more limber and energetic than most of the current crop of pop artists currently engaged in Twitter spats and Instagram controversies. And the show ran the gamut of musical styles, eras, ethnic flavours and artistic appropriations, from disco and thumping dance club beats to country, swing, flamenco and Parisian cabaret.
As for the “hits,” few were presented in their original MTV-friendly formats. “La Isla Bonita” morphed into a medley of Latin-tinged renditions of “Dress You Up,” “Lucky Star” and “Get Into the Groove,” while deconstructed versions of “Like a Virgin,” “Music” and “Material Girl,” although interesting and recognizable, never really took off into the pop stratosphere.
A doo-wop sing-along of “True Blue” was a charmer, and Madonna further stripped down the proceedings with an acoustic version of “Secret” and a cover of Edith Piaf’s “La Vie En Rose,” which she performed on ukulele and dedicated to her absent daughter, Lola, who apparently turned 19 that day.
Although the songs, impressive dance routines and video montages operated like a well-oiled concert machine, Madonna’s stage banter and audience interaction occasionally derailed much of the momentum. Seeing which side of the arena can cheer the loudest is hacky at the best of times, but after the fourth or fifth “competition,” it felt tedious. The payoff of Madonna jokingly harassing a supposedly drunk audience member in the front row and then sharing a shot of booze with her was that the woman turned out to be none other than comedian Amy Schumer. But what to make of Madonna’s quip about wanting two male dancers to fight over her and then getting the audience to cheer for more “crimes of passion”? Other confounding moments included an occasional southern drawl creeping into her speech, a rather long introduction of a “guest bitch” dancer at the end of the night and a prolonged spiel where Madonna claimed she was schizophrenic or bipolar or maybe just a temperamental artist with, product tie-in, a “rebel heart.”
Thankfully, the tireless entertainer knows how to pull her enormous, occasionally wayward ship of a concert into dock, and did just that with a buoyant encore of one of her earliest hits, “Holiday.” The song was the least tampered with of her old songs and everything you’d want from a Madonna concert experience: simple, catchy and joyous, like a perfect piece of pop art or merchandise for your aging feline to snuggle up to.