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Review: Madonna Casts Ray Of Light On New Material

Showing no signs of fatigue or question marks about making a show revolve around material from her last two albums, Madonna started her final stop on the Drowned World Tour Sunday with a mesmerizing and confident performance that puts to shame any singer who thinks she might have a shot at Ms. Ciccone’s pop throne.

Madonna frames blocks of songs in various settings, using mix-and-match motifs that yield differing results. In the end, she emerges triumphant – a reminder of why her star has never dimmed.

Hundred-minute show closes on “Holiday,” Madonna’s first top 40 single from way back in ’83, and it is, with the exception of “La Isla Bonita,” the only song in the show from her first decade of hits. “Holiday,” and the encore “Music,” are used to simply celebrate her past with minimal enhancement; a montage of her music video life plays at center stage during the performance of “Music,” the title track from her latest album, which has sold 2 million copies in the 11 months since its release, a sign that her appeal as a live performer far exceeds her ability to move CDs off retail shelves. The tunes are crowdpleasers no doubt, yet they cement the ever-changing image of Madonna and make easier the acceptance of what her longtime fans have just witnessed: the new worldly Madonna.

Madonna separates the show into four parts, the cowgirl and Latina motifs working the best and the Japanese atmosphere the most curious. Evening begins with what Madonna has termed “rock ‘n’ roll punk rock girl”; she breaks out the electric guitar for “Candy Perfume Girl,” hammers her way through “Impressive Instant” and surrounds herself with wild dancing and mind-bending video projections.

Each segment comprises five or six songs, and in each seg an individual song stands out as the best, beginning with “Beautiful Stranger,” which explodes from the stage with a clip from “Austin Powers” and Madonna querying, “Do I make you horny,” followed by a mod video parade dominated by green and purple circles that complement the tune’s swinging ’60s overtones and melodic hooks.

A Japanese section (Madonna as Geisha girl?) comes off as too distant – a combination of Cirque du Soleil acrobatics, elaborate costuming and some rather violent anime. Impressive as they are on their own, as a whole it looks like it aspires to be a morality tale – be strong? kill off your demons? – but it clutters the musical presentation, the exception being the blissful “Nobody’s Perfect.”

At their best, the themes work as backgrounds, a visual enhancement of a particular song. “Don’t Tell Me,” the second single from “Music” album, is the second number in the cowgirl bloc and immediately the most impressive number of the night; in it, Madonna and troupe, dressed in little cowboy hats and jeans with chaps, move about the stage as an ensemble, mixing erotic steps with those found at a Texas dance hall. It’s her ability to sexualize an image, be it secular or profane, that has been the essence of Madonna, and here it works without question or controversy.

“Don’t Tell Me” is also the first song of the night to be presented by the ensemble making collective moves, the first song to be sold to the entire crowd. That’s part of the Japanese section’s weakness: Madonna and her dancers and musicians go every which way, making focus difficult, especially for the folks unable to fork over the $250 for the front third of the house.

Her Latin segment, which closes on a Spanish version of “What It Feels Like for a Girl,” is changed to say “Woman,” and “La Isla Bonita,” amplifies the power of presenting the ensemble in the singular. In the performance of those two songs, and this is especially true of the latter, Madonna completely alters the energy of the evening, reducing the video images to nil and using South American percussion and acoustic guitars to give the performance a previously unheard organic feel. It’s a beautiful way to take a show to its penultimate point, to demonstrate that there’s a soul behind this music and that there’s not all flash and fluff, that Madonna remains an artist for the ages. It is music being made by an adult.

Show greatly benefits from the sound quality being the best it has ever been in Staples Center. Madonna’s run continues Tuesday, Thursday and Friday night.

Presented by Concerts West and Nederlander. Band: Madonna, Stuart Price, Donna De Lory, Niki Haris, Monte Pittman, Ron Powell, Steve Sidelnyk. Opened, reviewed Sept. 9, 2001; also Sept. 11, 13 and 14, 2001.

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