Madonna at Wells Fargo Center: Too Much Spectacle, Not Enough Madge

For all the elaborate sets, gloriously slick videos and sky-high production values, all everyone really wanted was Madonna herself.

Photo courtesy of Kevin Mazur for WireImage/Getty

Photo courtesy of Kevin Mazur for WireImage/Getty

The sacred and profane were on full display last night at Madonna’s Rebel Heart show at the Wells Fargo Center. Fans even broke out the Pope and nun costumes — plus the usual full drag-queen glam outfits you see at all her shows. You can imagine that months ago when the news of Pope Francis’s visit was announced that Madonna and her team must have cooed with pleasure at the timing that coincided so neatly with her tour stops in New York City and Philadelphia. The 57-year-old singer referenced His Holiness a lot throughout the night and noted, “You know what I think is interesting is that the Pope is stalking me. Either that or he’s secretly in love with me.”

The night opened with “Iconic,” her song featuring hot new thing Chance the Rapper and, the not new Mike Tyson. She descended from the rafters in a metal cage in a dramatic red cape. Once Madonna was freed from her cage, she and her backup dancers prowled around the stage in careful choreography to a set that could’ve been a mashup of Kurasawa’s medieval samurai film Ran and Luc Besson’s The Messenger: The Story of Joan of Arc.

Next was her Nicki Minaj-assisted war song “Bitch, I’m Madonna,” the most popular from her latest and thirteenth album. The devoted fan next to me accompanied the Queen of Pop from his seat, enthusiastically screaming every single word of the lyrics in full voice. She followed up with a robotic techno version of “Burning Up.” “Holy Water” came next, a showcase for dancing nuns on stripper poles made out of crosses. She rolled out more new material with “Devil Pray,” “Messiah” and “HeartBreakCity.”

Instead of anything being genuinely provocative at any point in the evening, it felt more like carefully designed arch gestures to what her formerly edgy self would spontaneously have done. Also you began to realize that the former club-kid dancer wasn’t really dancing all that much. She was doing more super star strutting.

But, when the hokey set full of Route 66 filling station props for “Body Shop” appeared, I became worried. Fans, though supportively on their feet, were subdued looking on as she and her boy toy dancers acted out musical vignettes. But, when was she going to fire things up, stop all the ponderous musical theater, and let loose? We wanted to get into the groove. She did treat fans to some oldies with updated musical spins on them: “True Blue,” “Deeper and Deeper” and later “La Isla Bonita,” “Dress You Up,” “Material Girl.”

“Candy Shop” was fun with the Josephine-Baker dressed dancer and Madonna capering around, dedicating the naughty sections — “I’ll be your one-stop candy shop … My sugar is raw, sticky and sweet “— to the Pope, “because I know he’ll appreciate it.”

One thing Madonna can not be faulted for is her high-fashion wardrobe, with eight full looks in total through the night. Though she raised eyebrows in the headlines by eschewing any pieces designed by Versace — she’s been the face of the design house four times in its ad campaigns — Madge did sport some stunning pieces specially designed for her tour by Alessandro Michele for Gucci, Miuccia Prada, and Jeremy Scott for Moschino. She wore Scott’s dazzling showgirl flapper Swarovski-encrusted costume for the last section of the night.

But, when the theatricality of the show threatened to flatten the mood (the guy in front of me was sometimes opting to check his Facebook feed), Madonna really shined in her pared-down numbers.

The best of the night was her super-sexy, funked-up rendition of “Like a Virgin.” The crowds went mad for her playful game-on club-dancing moves. More, more! The gaggle of her dancers weren’t around to dilute the focus from her, and it felt like she was genuinely having fun. She got the same connection going with the audience during her acoustic Edith Piaf classic, “La Vie En Rose,” when she sat alone on stage and strummed the guitar.

For all the elaborate sets, gloriously slick videos and sky-high production values, all everyone really wanted was Madonna herself … Just dancing, grooving and playing around with the crowd in her bossy way. Based on the mostly muted crowd reaction, I’m not sure we got all that we really wanted. Though the super fan sitting next to me was beyond thrilled and breathlessly turned to his companion, pointing and simply said, “Oh my God. It’s Madonna.”

She closed out the night in a patriotic red, white and blue outfit with the nostalgic encore choice, “Holiday,” singing, “You can turn this world around and bring back all of those happy days …”