Madonna was a lucky star at RFK Stadium last night. Rain clouds teased the crowd of 35,000 at intermission with a wisp of wetness, then sat back with everyone else and watched That Girl's parade of audio and video hits brought to life on a large, surprisingly unobtrusive stage. Of course, not even a Busby Berkeley set could have competed with the new slim-line, short-coifed Madonna, looking better than ever and sounding even more assured than she did on her 1985 "Like a Virgin" tour.
That was the tour that proved Madonna's pop tart image was media hype, not career definition. This tour, dubbed "Who's That Girl" after an upcoming movie, may on occasion disappoint at the box office -- and it probably would have played better to a full house at the Capital Centre or Merriweather Post Pavilion. But to her credit, Madonna performed last night as if the house were full, and the show is splendid pop theater. Madonna has described it as "Broadway in a stadium," and with her nonstop dancing, costume changes, mini-dramas and dynamic pacing, it is sort of a "Liza With an M."
It could just as well be called "The Madonna Workout." With just a few ballads on the program, the emphasis was on tingling dance numbers such as "Into the Groove," "Holiday" and "Where's the Party?" (Suddenly, there it was! It was a night where art met aerobics.)
Madonna kicked the night into gear with "Open Your Heart," wearing a black "Cabaret" style bustier. The cone-shaped pasties with dangling tassles were a lot less suggestive than some of her body movements, but for the most part Madonna was naughty and nice, more teasing than vamping. In a reverse on a striptease, she actually started putting clothes on as the show progressed: By the third number, "True Blue," she was encrusted in a blue silk taffeta dress with petticoat, an embodiment of the '50s innocence at the heart of the song. This qualified as the quickest and most extreme change of the night, but was by no means the last (there were eight altogether, courtesy of designer Marlene Stewart; so much for bargain basement fashion, but then again, she did give a big boost to bustiers).
On what was the strongest part of the show -- a medley of "Dress You Up," "Like a Virgin" and "Material Girl" -- she became Superwoman and changed in an onstage telephone booth, emerging with a basic bordello look to launch into three of the deepest hooks she's turned into hits. For the third number, her jovial gold digger's credo, Madonna camped things up, putting a sweet edge on a song that's sometimes been turned against her. It was all good, glitzy, glamorous fun.
Two new, somewhat derivative songs, the ballad "Look of Love" and the groove-centered "Causing a Commotion," didn't, probably because they're not yet familiar (one suspects they will be by summer's end). For the most part, Madonna sought out a balance between each song's audio and video history, never really mimicking her video persona, but offering subtle reference to the medium that cemented her reputation. Everything was okay as long as she kept moving -- and that was most of the time, although occasionally she'd strike a fairly ridiculous pose, as if she were cramming a fashion shoot into an instrumental break.
On the other hand, Madonna worked hard to overcome the size of RFK but couldn't, despite her athletic zeal and two large screens that bookended the stage. That left the audience with a visual dislocation, looking to the sides of the energy field, so to speak. Obviously, Madonna's immense popularity has its downside when it comes to connecting to such a large audience, and that made the musical bargain a particularly important one to keep. For the most part she did, staying on pitch even when she was spinning on a dime.
"Papa Don't Preach" was just one of several songs that gain an urgency and focus in tight, aggressive arrangements. The seven-piece band, under the direction of keyboard player Pat Leonard, was as tight as one could want without overwhelming Madonna's singing. The only real weak spots were "White Heat," "Live to Tell" (one of her best songs, but one that didn't make the stadium transition too well) and the tour's title song, which sounds like something to roll credits over.
But don't tell that to the fans. They simply couldn't get enough of Madonna, singing and dancing along with her to all the familiar hits. Given the perfunctory high-tech set and her almost parodistic support dancers, what the audience got was just enough of Madonna: a confident, self-possessed, thorough pop professional and shining star. Even then the bottom line was faintly familiar: That Girl just wants to have fun.
Audience emulation -- rampant on the "Like a Virgin" tour -- was not much in evidence this time around. Rarely was a bustier to be seen among the mostly young adult throng. Almost nobody seemed to want to be Madonna last night.
"Thank God for that," sniffed De De Tamahill, 25, fixing her makeup as cold drizzle flattened her well-molded coiffure. "I'm so glad I'm not seeing little girls in teddies and ta-ta tassles."
Jewels Lehr, 20, was one of the exceptions. Attired in a gaudy array of beads and a sheer black teddy ("what I wear to bed"), Lehr said she was disappointed more people hadn't joined in the Wanna-Be spirit.
"I can't believe all these boring people," she said, eyes boring holes through a group of teen-agers clad in khakis and polo shirts. "I mean, this is a Madonna concert, isn't it?"
Washington Post staff writer Ryan Murphy contributed to this report.