The first words Madonna used to express herself on opening night of her four show run at the Met Philadelphia on Saturday were written by James Baldwin.
“Art is here to prove that all safety is an illusion.” Percussive sounds were tapped out as the silhouette of a woman hunched over a typewriter was shown on a video screen. “Artists are here to disturb the peace.”
On her big, messy, maddening and sometimes spectacular ‘Madame X Tour,’ Madonna casts herself as that provocateur, the brave woman with a global vision who pokes her finger in society’s eye, forcing the world to look.
She’s not here to placate her fans by playing greatest hits, though a handful did appear over the course of the aggressively intimate 2 1/2 hour show, staged in a theater whose 3400 capacity is tiny by her standards. She’s also scheduled to perform on North Broad Street on Sunday, Tuesday and Wednesday.
“Express Yourself” was sung a cappella by the entire cast of two dozen or so musicians and dancers, plus three of the singer’s daughters. “Vogue” and the heart stopping ballad “Frozen,” were showstoppers, the latter accompanied by clips showcasing another daughter, dancer Lourdes Lyon.
Other oldies but goodies were included. In “Papa Don’t Preach,” the 61-year-old singer made a point of changing a key lyric to “I’m not keeping my baby,” and gave a speech about women’s rights being under attack.
A personal narrative drives the show. In 2017, Madonna moved to Lisbon to accommodate her son David’s passion for soccer. “Every once in a while, I think of somebody besides myself,” she quipped.
(Other crowd interactions included the singer auctioning off a Polaroid selfie for $3000, with cash going to support her Raising Malawi charity.)
The Madame X album blends fado melancholy and propulsive rhythm from Cabo Verde, the nation off the coast of northwest Africa, with familiar dance pop.
On stage, the influence is more pronounced, and often effective. The back up musicians include several fado players, four of whom entertained the crowd with Madonna covers before she took the stage.
Mid-way through, 14 women percussionists of Cabo Verde’s Orquestra Batukadeiros came down the aisles, filling the room with joyous energy. The segment which followed began with the singer paired with Gaspar Varela, guitarist grandson of the late fado singer Celeste Rodrigues. Madonna handled herself admirably.
The extended set piece also included “Killers Who Are Partying,” a well-intentioned Madame X track in which the singer has the gall to present herself as a selfless heroine willing to shoulder the burden of the sufferings of oppressed people throughout the world.
“I will be gay, if the gay are burned / I’ll be Africa, if Africa is shut down,” she sang. “I’ll be Islam, if Islam is hated / I’ll be Israel, if Israel is incarcerated.” Madonna: She’s all things to all people. Because it was rendered with musical subtlety — and some lyrics sung in Portuguese — the song was not as wince-inducing as on Madame X.
The show is impressively elaborate and casually paced, giving the star time to riff like a stand-up comic.
She expressed confusion about the popularity of cheese steaks (“What’s up with that?”) and talked about how thrilled she was to be in “this beautiful opera house with M’s all over the place. It looks like they built it for me. They did, didn’t they?”
Madame X is not loaded with bangers, but a few songs picked up the pace. “Medellin,” featuring Columbian rapper Maluma on video, brought Madonna and dancers into the crowd. And “Crave,” with the ‘X’ patch she wore intermittently during the show covering her left eye, revved the room up for a finale.
The one-two punch finale began with an ecstatic “Like A Prayer,” with singer and choir in robes bearing gold crosses. It was what everyone had been waiting for. The show then closed with “I Rise,” advocating for gun control and press freedom. The screen turned the colors of the rainbow flag, and Madonna, dancers and musicians exited up the aisle, with fists raised.
Logistical notes: It’s a “phone free” show. Tickets holders must put devices in pouches they keep with them but may not use while in the theater space. The process slows entry, but freeing the devices at the show’s close-to-2 a.m. finish was efficient.