WORCESTER -- Even before the mohawked skateboarder began riding the half-pipe during "Hollywood," interest in the thin red string circling Madonna's left wrist had vanished. As well it should have. With a two-hour show this gorgeous and this artful, Madonna hardly needed to rely on a spiritual stunt to generate the sort of excitement that, 20 years into her iconic pop career, she's still capable of conceiving brilliantly and executing it masterfully.
That said, she takes pleasure in keeping us guessing. Or maybe she's just an equal-opportunity disciple, happy to give props to Hebrew script and Jesus on the cross, which were both featured prominently on video screens.
More to the point -- this is a concert, not a celebrity inquest -- in the era of over-the-top arena spectacles, Madonna has taken the concept to a new level. Without a unifying thread and in defiance of every aesthetic law known to man, she wove elements of burlesque, extreme sports, rock concerts, Cirque du Soleil, military drills, art installations, dance theater, yoga, and antiwar rallies into a whole. And seamlessness was merely the icing.
The "Re-Invention" tour, which sounded so desperately self-referential on paper, turns out to be impossibly accurate. Madonna manages to reinvent her reinventions. She gilded "Vogue" with a French court twist, delivered an irony-free "Material Girl," deepened "Into the Groove' with bagpipes and kilts, and redefined "Express Yourself" as a drummer boy's march into battle. The latter tune featured the fatigues and rifles from the proceeding number "American Life," but the jarring image neatly summed up what Madonna's career has been about: Mindful confrontation, artful provocation, and the use of every part of her body and mind to spark her own little culture wars.
She's never sounded better. The treated chirp of her early years, which morphed into the dreadful earnestness of the "Evita" era, has matured into a strong, clear singing voice. A few years ago the idea of Madonna standing alone at a microphone singing "Frozen" would have been a dubious one. Last night she commanded her spectacle and her music with equal clarity.
Describing the breath of the pageantry during "American Life," her most blatant political statements, images of firestorms, screaming helicopters, and wounded children flashed on video screens while dancers dressed in religious frocks (this being a Madonna show, the habits and burkas were minis) traversed a massive V-shaped catwalk above the audience. Sure it was preachy. Timely, too.
She's traded in her bullet bra for spangled hot pants, disco beats for finger popping, and transformed "Hanky Panky" and "Deeper and Deeper" into noir numbers. Likewise, the abstract ballroom choreography of "Die Another Day' was an elegant antidote to the rote gyrations favored by the next generation of pop stars.
A blipping, bloated take on John Lennon's "Imagine" was the evening's one misstep. But her heart was in the right place. And for the first time in a long time, so were all the artistic pieces.
Joan Anderman can be reached at email@example.com.