In an uncharacteristically unadorned segment around two-thirds into the kickoff of her Rebel Heart Tour, Wednesday at the Bell Centre, Madonna announced she was “going to sing a little song here on my guitar — back to where it all began.”
Before she could spark a flamenco-tinged Who’s That Girl, a fan’s interjection caught her ear. “Yes, I know I played drums first. But who can see you behind the drums? I’m a Leo. We like to be the centre of attention.”
So she’s still self-aware. And in a spare-no-expense theatrical spectacle that artfully flowed from showstopper to showstopper, she proved once again that she doesn’t just crave the spotlight — she owns it.
Montreal accidentally got the first look at the Rebel Heart Tour after five shows were postponed for extra prep time, and the kinks were ironed out before Wednesday night. (OK, 99 per cent of them were: “This costume is treacherous,” the singer exclaimed when she got snagged by some bejewelled fringe.) Consisting of four loosely thematic sections broken up by costume changes, with almost every song benefiting from its own tailor-made staging and with a small army of dancers gracefully executing intense choreography, the show hit all the marks.
Those included the expected provocation. Anyone hoping Madonna would smash new taboos would have left disappointed; but then, she’s already shattered most of them. Still, the first segment’s slightly confused rebellion was built on a load-bearing mash-up of familiar themes: sex, salvation, religion, oppression.
The introductory film positioned the star as both outsider and leader, with images of Madonna — and, why not, Mike Tyson — in captivity, and talk of “too much creativity being crushed beneath the wheel of corporate branding. … It’s time to wake up.” Ignoring the fact that Madonna long ago became a corporate brand unto herself, it was thrilling to see her descend from the rafters and break out of her cage. With a battalion of armored warriors falling under her command, Iconic was insanely theatrical, Broadway-worthy, and just the beginning.
There was a back screen projection of Nicki Minaj motor-mouthing through the shuddering bass in Bitch I’m Madonna (rarely has a song title been more perfect for pricey shirts at the merch stand), although the virtual cameo was upstaged by a cyclone of geisha’s. There was Madonna whipping off her skirt and playfully scolding the gawkers (“I’m up here”) as she riffed on a Flying V in an aggressive Burning Up — boiled down to an elemental form, like most of the set list’s vintage pieces.
And there were the stripper nuns. Twenty-six years after Like a Prayer’s video scandalized the Vatican and parents who relied on MTV as a cheap babysitter, the sight of dancers twisting down steel crucifixes while Madonna snapped “bitch, get off my pole” in Holy Water was hopefully intended to be comical. The Last Supper tableau that played out during a rumbling Vogue was more challenging, as was the dance-off in Devil Pray that seemed to advocate for spirituality as the most powerful drug.
From there, the show’s tone was more carefree, helped along by a singer who was clearly enjoying herself. The more modest second segment centered on a certain youthful innocence; in a display of Madonna’s gift for literalism, it opened with her lounging on a car hood, swigging from a bottle and cavorting with her grease-monkey buddies for a whimsical Body Shop. She strummed True Blue on ukulele from atop a tire stack; it was both endearingly quaint and, supersized by an unprompted singalong from more than 16,000 voices, a goose-bump moment that felt more grandiose in its way than the showpieces surrounding it.
Heart Break City’s intimate drama unfolded on a spiral staircase between Madonna and a solitary dancer, pushed to his doom in an effective climax. A skeletal, click-clacking Like a Virgin was both bigger and smaller, the star left alone to fill the sprawling cross-shaped walkway with her charisma. No problem.
The third block opened with the unsubtle and unfulfilled promise of an R rating, as dancers played out bedroom passions to a tape of S.E.X., before Madonna charged out to fight jewel-faced demons to the techno soundtrack of Living for Love, scalping a pair of horns in triumph at the end. In one of the evening’s minor victories, she made a smooth transition from that sulphur-scented campiness to the Latin romance of La Isla Bonita — one of the only hits to retain its original form, with steadfast cultural references that won’t yield to a restless artist’s hammer and tongs.
Perilously perched on rubber poles and bending with the wind in an astonishing display of acrobatics, the dancers nearly stole the show in their employer’s absence during another costume change, set to Illuminati’s woozy thump. After a jazz-club revision of Music’s universal mission statement opened a party-hearty stretch, Madonna stole it back, updating the choreography of Material Girl’s video by sending suitors tumbling down the angled centre-stage platform. (The song was also updated, dragged out of the ’80s by an apocalyptic bottom end.) The device was the linchpin in the elegant stage design, rising from and collapsing into the floor, and serving as both a screen and a playground.
La Vie en rose was another big small moment, prefaced by a speech about believing in love despite being “devastated, smashed to bits” that may become rote in a few weeks but sounded fresh on Wednesday. Delivered atop a circular riser decorated with Valentine’s curtains, the performance was stronger for being vulnerable, and received a resounding ovation that transcended thanks-for-singing-in-French affection.
She risked draining that immense bank of adoration by wrapping herself in the maple leaf during the mandatory celebration of Holiday. (Judging by her star-spangled cloak, it was a temporary substitute for the American flag. Still: were they fresh out of fleur-de-lis at the souvenir shop?)
It was a rare tone-deaf gesture in a nearly flawless show whose polish didn’t mask its spirit. The big production numbers were elevated by a striking joyfulness, the less adorned songs by a genuine warmth.
In the second category, none stood out more than Rebel Heart’s uplifting title track, presented as a statement of identity and gratitude. Before expressing thanks for the fan art that was spliced into the backscreen projection, Madonna asked: “Do we ever really know who we are? It takes a lifetime to figure it out.”
Another interjection from the floor got a laugh. ” ‘Bitch, we’re Madonna.’ Yeah, that’s a start.”
The start, and the end. The song title and the show shared a sense of self-confidence and a sense of play. The first was never in doubt; the second was a minor revelation from an artist whose discipline and perfectionism haven’t compromised a love of serious fun.
Madonna performs again at the Bell Centre Thursday, Sept. 10 at 8 p.m., with Diplo. Tickets cost $52.50 to $385
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