A colorful phantasmagoria, Madonna’s “Confessions” tour opened in Los Angeles Sunday and presented the 47-year-old as a dancing machine with a rather simple need, a beat. “Confessions on a Dance Floor,” Madonna’s dance-oriented album from last year, fills more than half of the 90-minute, encoreless evening. Stripped down as it is, Madge and her creative team pump up every song to larger than life through images on video screens, brilliant lighting and lively movement on the mainstage. A wide ramp cuts down the center of the arena to a smaller stage, which becomes a playground for the dancers and Madonna, who play the entire evening at fever pitch.
Madonna has always allowed her designers to go hog wild, yet here the team has created a cohesive whole, making the entire night engaging regardless of whether she’s singing hits or lesser-known “Confessions” material. She sings with the muscularity of her well-toned body, even turning the album track “Sorry” into a tour de force from vocals alone. The visuals plus the material should prevent her from having to follow “Confessions” with an Act of Contrition tour in which she kowtows to nostalgia to sate her fans’ demands for her pre-“Vogue” standards.
She arrived — 50 minutes after the printed start time of 8 p.m. — at the center-arena stage, climbing out of a giant disco ball that has descended from the ceiling, driving home the point that this is a dance show. The Donna Summer/Giorgio Moroder hit “I Feel Love” was the second song performed, a harbinger of the night, just in case the glittering ball was too subtle — this is music about love and sex, feeling good and enjoying the visceral excitement of music.
Positioned as her re-entry into the dance music arena, “Confessions on a Dance Floor” is no groundbreaking work by any stretch. If anything, it’s a bit retro: The timbre of the beats, vocal tweaks and synth sounds bear the sheen of 1985-95, especially Louie Vega productions and Depeche Mode. When “Ray of Light” is performed, its depth beyond most of the “Confessions” songs is almost instantaneously obvious.
While most tunes are performed as recorded, “Music” gets a startling reworking. Number starts with a loop of the intro to “Disco Inferno” as the stage is bathed in deep red. Dancers become roller-skating daredevils as the “Music” riff starts to sprout within “Inferno” yet never takes over; Madonna enters and sings the tune straight, allowing “Music’s” “I wanna dance with my baby” lyrics to settle in as if she were offering a salute to Studio 54’s heyday. Despite its excess, it gels convincingly.
Tune feeds into the final four — “Erotic,” which is presented with five couples dancing mild-mannered steps lifted from a Broadway ballroom scene; “La Isla Bonita,” done with on-the-nose visuals; “Lucky Star,” with some early off-key vocals that indicated there are live elements in a show abounding with electronically triggered sounds; and “Hung Up,” the best single on “Confessions,” a dance hit that never quite caught on at the radio.
The Forum, which was sweltering, did Madonna’s voice no favors. She often was shouting, and the reverb added by sound technicians fought with the building’s notoriously bad acoustics. (Sound did improve as the evening wore on).
The ramp and center stage — devices that acts such as the Rolling Stones, Bon Jovi and U2 use to get closer to more audience members — don’t allow Madonna to produce intimate moments. Even when she sat on a stool on the mainstage and strapped on an acoustic guitar to sing the 1998 miss “Drowned World,” the result was as big as a dance track. Proximity, rather than intimacy, is what she delivers; her audience eats it up.
Being who she is, some of the show is bound to raise some eyebrows: The opening montage, set in a stable, borders on bestial porn; she strings together videos on AIDS in Africa, gangs and child abuse in a Clinton Foundation PSA that’s totally out of character with the rest of the program; and she emerges for a segment crucified on a metallic cross, complete with a crown of thorns. And as if she can’t go anywhere without dragging religion into the picture, a quote from the New Testament book of Matthew closes one video seg and a blowing of the shofar opens a ballad — but looking for a connection within this music seems futile.
Madonna performs June 28-29 and July 2-3 at Madison Square Garden in New York.