- The Washington Times - Tuesday, July 24, 2001

COX NEWS SERVICE
PHILADELPHIA — If, for a minute — or the eight years since her last tour — anyone doubted the potency of Madonna's mystique or wondered whether the 42-year-old mother of two, movie star and media mogul had surrendered her mojo to a budding generation of divas in training, the spectacle she stages on her Drowned World Tour should banish any such doubts.
Ambition like this, and the capacity to realize it on such a whopping scale, are rare enough in pop music. Even those who might succeed — take U2, which once hauled out a giant, glittering lemon-shaped disco ball to much derision — stumble over the risks involved.
Not Madonna, whose long absence from arena-land seems to have seeded a determination to create something no other entertainer this side of, say, Steven Spielberg could imagine topping.
Opening the U.S. leg of her tour Saturday night at Philadelphia's First Union Center, the singer presented a tightly paced 100-minute show that maximized theatrics, design and image overload while nervily insisting on a set list that abandoned a crowd-pleasing revue of now-nostalgic hits from her 20-year career. (Madonna is scheduled to perform at the MCI Center Aug. 10 and 11.)
Instead, she focused on songs from her last two albums, "Ray of Light" and "Music," which not only contain her most mature and introspective work, but also leap headfirst into the edgier zones of sex and noise where contemporary electronic pop thrives.
The music meshes seamlessly with the spectacle, even as the spectacle often seems to swallow the music whole.
What are we talking about here? Performance as conceptual hallucination: Each of the show's four segments is keyed to a theme, fleshed out with costumes, choreography, props and a barrage of images from a giant bank of overhead video screens.
Madonna starts off, conveyed out of the shadows as she sings "Drowned World" in a kilt and punk-rock bondage gear, as a troupe of gender-bent dancers races around the stage, chased by what look like giant Slinkys.
Over the next hour and a half, she straps on an electric guitar for "Candy Perfume Girl" (take that, Courtney); materializes as a geisha swathed in a Jean-Paul Gaultier-Arianne Phillips kimono whose sleeves stretch 52 feet during "Paradise Not for Me" (during which she is menaced by a sword-wielding samurai); plays "I Deserve It" on acoustic guitar during a sit-down "unplugged" session; revs up into the urban-cowgirl mode, bucking on a mechanical bronco for "Human Nature"; adopts flamenco airs for "La Isla Bonita," (with her hair pinned back to evoke her heroine Frida Kahlo as the dancers, backup vocalists and four-piece band form a percussive cluster); and, finally, trips the light fantastic as a ghetto fabulous player (take that, P. Diddy), reviving the blissful "Holiday."
That still leaves out a few things, such as the "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon" homage — Madonna chop-socking through the air, defying gravity (take that, Chow Yun Fat) — and the astounding flexibility of the dancers, who seem capable of bending their bodies to any design Madonna wills. (Just wait till they pull the Butoh Japanese ritual dance bit.)
If the Drowned World Tour really is about music — and "Music" — and not merely Madonna's knack for appropriating and remixing global and subcultural style, it still compels.
The third phase of the show works best, a kind of "Madonna goes Americana" sequence that focuses on the kind of ballads that have — perhaps covertly, given her brassy rep as an icon of utopian disco hedonism — been her forte as an artist. "Don't Tell Me," her remake of a tune written by brother-in-law Joe Henry, is one of the worthiest songs she has ever recorded, and "Secret," from the underappreciated R&B; effort "Bedtime Stories," has grown in depth.
By the time a glitter storm rains down during the show-closing "Music," with its playfully cheesy funk synths and old-school dance grooves, that utopian disco hedonism feels not trivial at all.
Nope, it's ridiculously life-affirming.

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