Madonna could just as well have titled her current "Blond Ambition" tour "Blunt Ambition." It's nothing less than a roadshow version of the videos that have made her one of the world's biggest stars.
Last night's show, the first of two sold-out performances at Capital Centre, found Madonna in what she said was rough voice (the result of a lingering cold) but not enough that anyone would notice. After all, Madonna has always compensated for her so-so voice with relentless dance energy and scandalous imagery, both of which were frequently on display last night.
Madonna's raunchy and randy behavior sidetracked the evening a number of times. Since there were many families and young concertgoers in the full house, all this probably provided a swell topic for discussion on the long ride home.
The show opened with a video-come-to-life rendition of "Express Yourself," one of many ridiculously erotic songs that punctuated the evening like rude jokes in good company. Madonna spent much of the evening touching herself in sexually suggestive ways, trying to crack jokes like the Mae West of rock and deca-dancing in various outrageous and provocative outfits by Jean-Paul Gaultier, whose philosophy, like Madonna's, seems to be grin and bare it.
Hundreds of women and girls -- and some men -- in the mostly female crowd of 18,000 wore a modified Madonna uniform, minus the signature Gaultier corset: spandex knee-length shorts edged in lace, lace body stocking and oversized tuxedo jacket, all in black.
"I had these made especially for this show," said Kelleigh Robinson of Middleburg of his all-lace spandex pants.
"I kept calling and saying, 'What are we going to wear? What are we going to wear?' " said his companion, Rascals nightclub veejay Steve Jackson. "It was so important. It had to be just right. I mean, we love Madonna."
As the evening wore on, Madonna moved through her own parade of hits. The funniest were "Material Girl," with Madonna and her two female backup dancer-singers camping it up in curlers and bathrobes before opting for bright froufrou, and "Cherish," with Madonna stroking a harp while three mermen cavorted at her feet.
Several of her dance floor anthems transformed the Capital Centre into a giant disco, notably the buoyant "Holiday" and "Get Into the Groove," the unsettling "Like a Prayer," "Keeping Together" and the highly stylized "Vogue." All qualified as big production numbers.
The show is produced as if its roots were on Broadway, not MTV. The six-piece band was situated discreetly (to the sides, rather than in a pit); the spotlight was always clearly on the star, though sometimes it enveloped her nine backup dancers; the sets and sounds were spectacular and the choreography was just as important as the music.
Rock operas may be dead, but, as Janet Jackson and Madonna are proving, rock ballet has arrived. Let's call this one "Doll and Guys."
However, a number of songs early in the show -- "Open Your Heart," "Causing a Commotion" and "Where's the Party" -- suffered from overly tight choreography that left little to chance, less to spontaneity and nothing to the imagination. Too often, the hyperkinetic dancing seemed mere busywork aimed at covering the shortcomings of the songs themselves. Fueled by aerobic intensity, they would have benefited from more emotional underpinning.
That was never a problem during the five-song segment that began with "Like a Virgin" and ended, appropriately, with "Papa Don't Preach." "Virgin" was the only clear miscalculation, probably meant to shock, but only distressing. Madonna rose up center stage atop a harem bed with red satin sheets, bookended by two eunuchs wearing bullet bras. The song itself -- one of her golden undies, er oldies -- has been slowed and given an "Arabian Nights" flavor, which provokes a lot of writhing and undulating on the part of Madonna. "This is where it gets nasty," said one member of the audience.
The next four songs -- "Like a Prayer," "Live to Tell," "Oh Father" and "Papa Don't Preach" -- have been called Madonna's "Catholic guilt segment," and they not only form the most substantial part of her repertoire but also provoke her most impassioned, forceful and direct singing. The gospel-driven "Prayer" was played out in a church setting lit by votive candles and a neon cross, with a black-robed Madonna flanked by a chorus line of monks and nuns (their order probably requires a vow of celebrity). "Live to Tell," an elegant, anguished ballad, featured some curious interplay with a priest. That's the problem with Madonna sometimes: She undermines good texts with inappropriate images.
Madonna's usually keen marketing savvy has led her (unwisely, wethinks) to include a small "Dick Tracy" segment; it comes off like an Ice Capades tie-in, particularly the old soft gumshoe routine in "I'm Following You." However, Madonna acquitted herself quite well on "Sooner or Later," a semi-classic torch song delivered atop a piano, though without the help of the Fabulous Baker Boys (Madonna, it so happens, turned down the Michelle Pfeiffer role). As for "Hanky Panky," it's as silly and slight in its concert production as it was in the writing and recording. None of these songs is likely to lure people to theaters next week.
Throughout the show, there are some intriguing sexual role reversals at work. Madonna does have a gift for visual satire and irony, an underlying strain in almost all of her videos and now in her stage show. Sometimes, though, it gets tedious, particularly when Madonna acts abusively toward her dancers, mock-kicking and hitting them and generally making sure everyone knows who's in charge.
With her aerobically taut body and her hair pulled back and ponytailed, Madonna came across as a Gidget with raging hormones. When she's good, she's very, very good; when she's naughty, she's not very good.
Staff assistant Dana Thomas contributed to this report.