Bitch, there’s only one Madonna. The 57-year-old Queen of Pop made that abundantly clear during a more than two hour stage spectacular last night at Madison Square Garden, the first of three NYC-area dates of her hater-silencing Rebel Heart World Tour.
Wheeling out a die-hard fan-feeding 23 tracks — naturally, some recent thumpers off Rebel Heart, her thirteenth studio disc, and surprisingly straight-forward, heartfelt renderings of classics she hasn’t performed live in decades — the Material Girl turned out her most astonishingly impressive live experience since 2006’s Confessions Tour. Although she was backed by a new, multi-cultural cadre of resistance band-flexible backup dancers, dressed in the finest stage gear from Gucci, Alexander Wang, and Miu Miu and accompanied by a small city’s worth of LED lights, M relied on her singular catalog of hits, unblemished dancing chops and 30 years experience as an unequaled provocateur to do the heavy lifting.
Before showtime, a half-hour round of comedy from opener Amy Schumer lightened the mood in the arena. Here was another button-pushing woman who needed nothing more than a mic to hold the crowd in her clutches with a routine that included several jabs at herself (choice moment: comparing her looks to a hybrid of “a Cabbage Patch Kid and Tonya Harding”) — and one noticeable one at former Madge bestie Gwyneth Paltrow, with Schumer mocking the Goop founder’s Women’s Health cover.
Once Madonna took the crucifix-shaped stage at about 9:50 p.m. (cut her some slack, only 20 minutes late this time!) though, it was clear the singer wasn’t kidding around. Descending from a cage of swords in the opening Game of Thrones-themed suite, she launched the show with Rebel Heart’s “Iconic” and “Bitch I’m Madonna,” showing off her way with a fan during an Asian-infused dance routine. Still, she stopped short of attempting the “fan flip” she pulled off during the Maria Antoinette-styled performance of “Vogue” at the 1990 MTV Video Music Awards.
The concert kicked into high-gear as she strapped on her heavy metal guitar and brought her loyal subjects — including onlookers Jennifer Lopez, Casper Smart, Jerry Seinfeld, Ariana Grande, and Andy Cohen — to their feet with 1983’s “Burning Up.” The setting then quickly turned back to her stock trade of mixing the spiritual and the sexual, with Madonna and her dancers slithering on polls in racy nun habits and reenacting the Last Supper (with an S&M twist) during “Holy Water,” “Devil Pray” and “Messiah.”
The rarities of Encyclopedia Madonnica kept coming after she reemerged in a Pep Boys-esque set dressed as a goth version of Sandy from Grease, singing “Body Shop” before pulling out a ukelele and letting her oft-underestimated vocals shine with an acoustic, tears-inducing take of 1986’s “True Blue.” The disco Erotica-era cut “Deeper and Deeper” followed before Madonna turned back to her vulnerable side, climbing up and down (and up and down) a spiral staircase to belt Rebel Heart’s “Heartbreak City” and an affecting “Love Don’t Live Here Anymore,” a nearly-forgotten torch song from Like a Virgin.
On and on, M kept proving she’s still got the moves and the motion. The mother of four reenacted her matador act from springs’ awards show circuit for “Living for Love” (phew! The cape came off without a hitch. No scary falls this time!); “La Isla Bonita,” “Into The Groove,” and “Dress You Up” were strutted out in her usual Latin-themed set; she stuck to traditional arrangements of Madonna tour regulars “Material Girl” and “Music” while switching up the setting to Harlem’s Cotton Club circa 1925, donning a Swarvoski crystal-bedazzled flapper getup.
“I’m feeling pretty nostalgic tonight,” she copped at one point. Madonna backed that up beyond her own catalog, employing her trusty ukelele for more reflective moments, including an unplugged “Who’s That Girl” (!) and a rendition of the French standard “La Vie En Rose” (Reminder: She told Us in March that seeing her daughter sing the song on the instrument has been “the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen.”). But she swung the pendulum back to the here and now by the end, inviting Amy Schumer to escort her offstage (and giving her a sock and a banana? Madonna, please explain!) during “Unapologetic Bitch.”
For the encore, Madonna reemerged draped in an American flag (a nod to her 1990 MTV Rock The Vote ad), belting the spirited “Holiday” without being able to wipe the smile from her face. There’s a double meaning there: An acknowledgment that she’s still unbeatable in every regard as a pop star, with the show acting as a supreme victory lap through a venue she noted she had first performed in 30 years prior. But it also signified what was perhaps most evident the entire time: She had the most fun she’s had onstage in recent memory, lifting her often self-seriousness from recent treks and reveling in the art of being Madonna.