By the time the skateboarder began riding a half-pipe ramp set up in the middle of the stage, there was no choice but surrender. The guy was soaring to the right, then to the left, just like they do in the X Games, and at that point anyone who wasn't already entertained into submission had to wave the white flag.
Still to come was a troupe of bagpipers, a tap dancer in white tails and a trapeze trio that swayed and contorted in unison. An hour into the Madonna concert at MCI Center on Sunday night, the realization dawned: Our Material Girl was never going to run out of material.
Certainly not until she had wheezed new meaning into the word "concert." It's unclear what a night at the "Reinvention Tour" should be labeled, but the words currently available won't suffice. Madonna has created a new performance hybrid, one that lifts and blends elements of Broadway, Cirque du Soleil, Rock the Vote rallies, art installations, extreme sporting events, church sermons, disco dances and gun-spinning military drills. For a few songs, it even looked like a rock concert.
Here's the weird part: It's not a mess. It's actually kind of amazing. Pretentious and annoyingly preachy at moments, yes. Strangely devoid of titillation and almost tame by the standards of her naughty-naughty phase, sure. But measured in verve, nerve and technical wizardry, it's hard to leave this epic extravaganza feeling anything less than awe.
Just the seamlessness of it all is impressive. What's here -- and what was repeated for a second evening last night -- is a series of elaborate set pieces and costume dramas without a unifying thread, aside from Madonna's recording career. You imagine that a horde of roadies, miles of wire and a bank of iMacs were needed to make the gears of this machine whir correctly, yet the whole thing unfolds, wheels into place and lights up without a hint of effort. Even Madonna doesn't seem to be sweating much, which is a miracle, and not just because the air conditioning at MCI Center was turned off for much of the show. (Safe bet that was the star's idea; she hates air conditioning.) She's onstage every minute except the time it takes to switch outfits.
The difference between this show and the last, the "Drowned World Tour" of 2001, was striking. That show seems standoffish compared with this one, in part because Madonna has finally worked through whatever issues prevented her from performing her earliest hits.
"We're going to take a trip down memory lane," she said in one of the few asides to the audience. And we did. "Papa Don't Preach," "Open Your Heart" and "Into the Groove" were revived, and Madonna treated those tunes like former friends with whom she wanted to party again. As surprising, Madonna managed to sell a few songs from her latest album, "American Life," an absolute stinker that vanished shortly after its release last year. For the title track, she ran down a lengthy V-shaped catwalk that descended from the ceiling and allowed her to dance about 20 feet over the heads of fans near the middle of MCI. She ended that number by flipping the crowd the British equivalent of the bird. (It's the peace sign, only with the back of the hand to the recipient, if you're interested.) Either nobody realized it, or nobody minded.
Nobody seemed bothered by the antiwar, anti-Bush politics of the show, either. Every few songs, including a wistful take on John Lennon's "Imagine," there were photo montages of war-ravaged children, bombed-out villages and heavy artillery. At one point, a video showed a Dubya look-alike lovingly resting his head on the shoulder of a Saddam Hussein look-alike, as though the pair were waiting for a marriage license.
Gutsy? Not at this point, now that it's safe to stand against the administration and safe to rant about Iraq. Madonna would earn points for courage if last year, at the time of the U.S. invasion, she hadn't yanked the video for "American Life," which ridiculed Bush as a warmongering nincompoop.
No doubt Madonna was worried she'd get Dixie Chicked -- that country threesome paid dearly for criticizing the president during a show last year -- and maybe that fear was legitimate. But her finger-wagging Sunday night felt like catch-up, and it was turned into a "Miss Saigon"-style dance number that trivialized its own point of view. With the sound of a chopper thump-thumping in the background, her backup dancers, dressed as soldiers, crawled on their bellies as though in the middle of battle, then hugged each other as if saying goodbye. Then the fellas danced around Madonna, now in her Patty Hearst get-up -- camouflage pants, an olive army jacket, black beret.
"Stop all wars," Madonna commanded, before she and the Madonnistas left the stage for a costume change.
Will do, babe. Now play some of your hits, okay? Sillier still, Madonna kept pushing Kabala, a Jewish form of mysticism that's become the rage with celebrities in search of spiritual feeding. Hebrew letters, without translation, flashed time and again, and Madonna sang the last several numbers, including "Crazy for You," wearing a T-shirt that read "Kabalists Do It Better."
A veteran button-pusher, Madonna has apparently given up on the one button she pushed better than any other: sex. It makes sense that a mom of 45 would give up her bullet bra and skip the bedroom bump and grind that was a staple of her early arena shows. But "Reinvention" is filled with creepy screen images of naked bodies, all of them quivering and distressed through an editing technique that will be familiar to anyone who's seen a Marilyn Manson video. It's supposed to be arty, and at moments it is. It's also grim, especially if you're expecting a glimpse of the Madonna who made that porno picture book long ago.
She's gone, and in her place is P.T. Barnum with a microphone and a glittering, age-appropriate corset. For a few tunes, Madonna even played guitar in front of her otherwise low-profile band, looking a lot like Sheryl Crow and strumming the bejesus out of the instrument.
Thanks to such interludes, the occasional darkness of "Reinvention" is overwhelmed by the dazzle of its expertly synchronized parts, not to mention Madonna's willingness to at least pretend to enjoy her audience again. She didn't come back for an encore, but she closed with "Holiday," amid cannon shots of confetti and a building filled with fans screaming so loud they seemed to forget the price of their tickets.
And the best seats, for the record, sold for $303.