The pop music spectacle at the Wells Fargo Center in South Philadelphia on Tuesday night began with a group of dancers in hooded medieval garb pulling a rope that made a giant, smoking thurible suspended from the rafters swing back and forth, while a Basque folk trio chanted the name of the show's star.
Before the night had ended, Lady Gaga had been dissed, Russian punk activists Pussy Riot had been praised, a striptease had been performed, a fake pistol and an automatic weapon had been waved around, and a fair share of hits such as "Express Yourself," "Vogue," and "Like a Prayer" had been energetically played.
And an adoring audience had pretty much forgiven the object of their affection for taking the stage an hour later than expected, and 21/2 hours after the time printed on the ticket.
That's right: Madonna was in town at the Wells Fargo Center, opening the North American leg of the tour that has traveled the world since opening in Tel Aviv in May.
The still-ripped 54-year-old singer played an often-entertaining hour and 45-minute set weighted toward the electronic dance tracks from her 2012 album MDNA - an abbreviation of her name and seemingly a play on the scientific acronym for the drug ecstasy - as well as her 2008 album Hard Candy.
The show was focused less on the irresistibly grabby pop hits that made Madonna such an innovative superstar in the 1980s. When many of her most recognizable songs were played, it was in altered form.
After disrobing down to her undies, for instance, during "Human Nature," and revealing the words "No Fear" inked on her well-muscled back, she said, "Sometimes it's easier to show your ass than to show your feelings. But tonight, maybe we can all live dangerously." She followed that with a spare, effective "Like a Virgin," performed as a waltz, accompanied only by a pianist.
In another departure, the usually aerobic earworm "Open Your Heart" was transformed into a percussive folk sing-along in a Euro-beatnik segment of the show, accompanied by the Basque musicians Kalakan.
At that point, she apologized for the lateness of her appearance, to the largely female and gay male audience: "We made so many changes between Europe and America, and I want to make the perfect show. Because my fans deserve it. And frankly I deserve it, too."
That interlude also contained a pro-democracy and free-speech statement from the singer, who said how happy she was to be "back home" and "in the city where the Declaration of Independence was signed." Madonna, who recently performed in Moscow with the words "Free Pussy Riot" inked in place of "No Fear" on her back, talked about the Russian punk band's plight and also the plight of imprisoned gays in St. Petersburg, Russia.
"Never forget that you're lucky to live where you live," she said. "So don't get fat and lazy."
Earlier, she took a cheap shot at Lady Gaga, for allegedly borrowing from Madonna's "Express Yourself" for Gaga's hit "Born This Way" - a shot she's taken as a standard part of her tour this year. While dressed as a drum majorette, she mashed up the two songs, along with her own "She's Not Me." Not very stateswoman-like, Madge.
The staging of the MDNA tour is often tortuous and dark. There's a whole lot of Sturm und Drang psychodrama attached to lightweight songs like "Girl Gone Wild." Madonna has said that the show depicts a "journey of a soul from darkness to light."
However, the toy AK-47 and revolver-waving in the early stages of the show - which included the singer play-acting beating, killing, and spitting on a worthless paramour (and probable Guy Ritchie stand-in) during "Gang Bang" - served mainly as examples of a veteran superstar overreaching for relevance and weighing her songs down with a burden they can't hold.
Contact Dan DeLuca at 215-854-5628 or firstname.lastname@example.org, or follow on Twitter @delucadan. Read his blog, "In the Mix," at www.philly.com/inthemix.