The show begins with five enormous video screens flashing images of a veiled Madonna with wolves as she reads the religious text from The Beast Within. The screens slowly crack open to a stage shrouded in an apron of fog.
The audience, naturally, is going absolutely nuts.
Madonna rises in shadow on a platform from beneath the stage as the synths from Vogue start up beneath the music. The spot comes on her right as she says “Strike a Pose”. The Forum goes wild. Eight or nine of her dancers come out and join her. The first set is comprised of Vogue, Nobody Knows Me, and Frozen. Nobody Knows Me sounds better than it ever has, as does Madonna’s voice, and the massive video screens call out the words as she sings them. Frozen is stark and minimal, with abstract lightning forms on the video screens and Madonna alone on stage. Look closely on the video screens near the end, and you’ll see images of two naked men embracing.
American Life, Express Yourself, Burning Up, and Material Girl make up the next set. American Life takes off from her video for that song, with a V-shaped metal runway and a fashion show with models dressed in various religious garb. Her male dancers (which, as expected, are HOT, muscled boys) are acting out a training camp, combat, love affair dance on stage. This segues into Express Yourself, which has Madonna and her dancers spinning rifle in a color guard. The video screens for these two numbers are showing scenes of war and strife, but they’re in no way as alarming as some would have you believe. In Burning Up, Madonna stands center stage with her guitar and does a hard rock version of the song. Her guitar playing has improved dramatically. It’s excellent.
Hollywood is a transitional song that Madonna doesn’t even perform. It’s entirely instrumental with a male dancer, an acrobat, and a shirtless skate punk who rides a skate ramp on stage.
For the next set Madonna appears as a kind of neo-kewpie doll for a rendition of Hanky Panky with her female dancers. Nobody seems quite sure why she chose this song from her entire collection. Deeper and Deeper comes next and has been transformed into a slow, dreamy ballad, which kind of works and kind of doesn’t. At this point the audience has achieved a sort of fatigue and settles down a bit, to be awakened quickly with Die Another Day, which ends with Madonna in the rumored electric chair (which isn’t at all shocking or scary). The chair begins to rise into the ceiling as she sings The Lament from Evita, which sounds brand new and gorgeous and absolutely perfect for this moment.
Bedtime Stories comes in here as another transitional song. Madonna sings it from the video screens as three dancers swing back and forth on long white swings.
She then pops up stage left with her guitar singing Nothing Fails. At this point, three quarters through the concert, 95% of the audience is still on their feet. After the song she apologizes to the audience for being sick the day before and thanks us all for coming back the next night. “Yesterday wasn’t a pretty picture,” she says. She launches into Don’t Tell Me and Like a Prayer which starts a segment heavy in religious iconography. The backdrops to Prayer are designs of mystical jewish symbols and hebrew letters. Then a giant picture of Jesus crucified appears and she sits down to sing Mother & Father. After the song she stands up and says she’s going to sing a song that she wishes she had written. “The lyrics are very timely,” she says, and an electronic version of John Lennon’s Imagine begins with images of starving and war-torn children in the background. It’s an odd choice at this point in the concert and Madonna’s rendition is sweet. The audience screams as an image of John Lennon comes on in the background and Madonna nods in acknowledgement. All well-intended (God knows we need anti-war messages) but in this context it doesn’t avoid feeling a bit cliche.
Then comes perhaps my favorite moment in the show. A Scottish bagpiper rises out of the stage and is joined by Madonna’s male dancers in kilts with Scottish drums. For five minutes they do an incredible set of Scottish music and then a heavy beat kicks in, Madonna comes on stage for a bagpipe version of Into the Groove. It’s incredible fun. This segues into Papa Don’t Preach where Madonna twirls around in circles with her female dancers in a kind of feminine love fest. She gets so dizzy she can’t sing the transition to the next song, which is some lines from American Life and she starts laughing. Then she walks stage left and rises on a platform. “The next song is dedicated to all of you who have stuck with me for the last 20 years.” This seriously gives you chills. Then she begins singing Crazy for You so beautifully you are right back in the 80’s.
The last two songs in the show are Music and Holiday. Music is performed atop a colorful pyramid that lights up Saturday Night Fever style with colored blocks of light. There’s a DJ spinning inside it. Holiday closes the show with Madonna and her dancers on the massive metal catwalk as cannons shoot clouds of confetti into the air.