Madonna has never been shy about trying and discarding different personas, so calling her new stage show “The Reinvention Tour” seems a little redundant. And by the end of the spectacular, if somewhat muddled, two-hour production, it’s apparent Madonna is not looking to reinvent herself. Only as the aud leaves the venue is any reference made to the evening’s titular concept. As the house lights come up and the confetti falls to floor after “Holiday,” two giant video screens that flanked the stage slide to the front and flash the words “reinvent yourself.”
While references to the war in Iraq and the Kaballah leave the aud with no doubt regarding her political and religious views, the evening is basically an impressively mounted greatest-hits survey, lacking any overarching theme. As she did in 2001, the evening is divided into four “acts”: the Opening; a circus-themed “Carnivale”; a five-song acoustic set that included a cover of John Lennon’s “Imagine”; and the kilt segment, complete with bagpipers and the entire troupe dressed in plaid kilts. (They end the evening by bending over to reveal letters spelling out “FREEDOM” on their undies.)
The opening is an odd affair, as a remix of “The Beast Within” is heard while images of Madonna with dogs and stylized suns — they look as through they could have been lifted from Janet Jackson’s breast — are shown.
The introductory incantation was nearly inaudible over the diverse aud’s cheers. Show starts in earnest with “Vogue.” The song’s exhortation to “strike a pose” sets the mood for the evening’s revue-like structure, the juxtaposition of the singer and her troupe of dancers with the three giant, razor-sharp video screens.
The opening section also includes the evening’s most incendiary moment, “American Life.” Song opens up like “Apocalypse Now,” with the sound of helicopters as Madonna and the dancers in fatigues go into battle with images of the war in Iraq behind them.
A second group of dancers dressed in various religious mufti — a miniskirted nun, a cardinal, a Hasidic rabbi and woman wearing a cobalt blue burnoose more fashion forward than anything seen in Baghdad — join them, only to be beaten by the soldiers at the song’s end. It’s an arresting bit of stagecraft, but it’s hard to square with the song’s lyrical critique of materialism.
Carnivale, prefaced by dancers dressed as clowns, skateboarders and a white-suited Bojangles and ending with a lovely rhythmic trapeze act, is the most sexually aggressive portion of the evening.
“Hanky Panky” (from “Dick Tracy”) becomes a pansexual roundelay, and “Deeper and Deeper” is transformed from a galloping dance number to a sultry ballad. But what sticks longest is the staging of “Lament” from “Evita”: Madonna strapped to an electric chair as a Hebrew word hovers above her.
The band, hidden on the sides of the stage most of the evening, takes center stage for the acoustic portion of the evening. But they’re overshadowed by the brilliant staging and arrangement of “Like a Prayer.” The slow, reverent beginning, with images taken from the Kaballah, is transformed into rousing gospel midway through by the addition of a taped black church choir, who appear on the video screens and turn the song into a deeply felt affirmation of love and religion.
“Imagine,” which concludes the acoustic set, is a nice gesture that doesn’t quite work. You can’t argue with the sentiment — the pathos of the starving children and ruined villages that flash by on the screens (and a shot of Lennon appearing onscreen to loud cheers as the lines “you may say that I’m a dreamer/but I’m not the only one” are sung) — but Madonna gives the song a strict on-the-beat rhythmic reading. It turns the song from a dreamy evocation of utopia into a martial anthem. When she gets to the line “I hope someday you’ll join us,” it’s as if Eva Peron has covered the song, and is exhorting the peasants to storm the barricades.
It’s followed by the whimsical kilt section. With the exception of “Crazy for You,” (which she dedicates to the fans who have stuck with her for 20 years), it’s an upbeat selection of tunes. “Get Into the Groove” gets the aud dancing; “Music” turns the stage into a giant, brightly lit disco.
Even the serious “Papa Don’t Preach” is lightened up: Madonna and her backup singers wear T-shirts reading “Kabbalists Do It Better.” And “Holiday,” her first big hit, is reworked into a crunchy, up-to-the-minute club number, without losing any of its innocent charm.
That might be the ultimate reinvention. Through constant change, Madonna has managed to remain a relevant and popular musician, a lesson the legions of Britneys and Christinas who have come in her wake could stand to learn.
The Reinvention Tour continues at the Forum on Thursday and returns to Southern California June 2-3 at the Pond in Anaheim; it plays New York’s Madison Square Garden on June 16-17 and 20-24.