Review: Madonna returns with massive show that feels fresh, not just nostalgic

Superstar shares her life story in Broadway-style mega-show

Who: Madonna
Where: Scotiabank Arena
When: Thurs., Jan. 11
Vibe: The queen of pop receives and delights her followers in epic show
Highlight: Massive, dance-powered performance of Vogue tops highlight-packed performance
Rating: NNNNN (out of 5)

MADONNA’S RETURN to Toronto with her Celebration tour was initially delayed for months by illness. Then it was delayed for two hours Thursday, the night of her triumphant return. But unsurprisingly, the wait is worth it.

After 10 pm, when Madge and her dozens of dancers finally emerge for a career-spanning show that exceeds two hours, the night feels more like a preview of the inevitable Broadway musical based on her life than a traditional pop concert.

She spends the night telling “the story of my life,” chatting with the crowd, reminiscing about her journey, and dropping speeches that are alternatively motivational messaging and agitprop, along with dancing, dancing and more dancing. The staging is spectacular, the choreography edgy and her message and energy still feel urgent, even ground-breaking.

The amount of actual singing, even counting the many lip-synch tracks, probably accounts for 60 per cent of the show — and no one is complaining in a crowd filled with Madonna lookalikes.

The narrative of her actual life is better than many half-baked tales used to string together the songs in a host of jukebox musicals. And in this show, we get Madonna singing the hits — her hits — not a touring company kid.

We know it’s finally show time when Bob the Drag Queen, in full Marie Antoinette regalia, starts roaming through the crowd like a giant iceberg with a mic, searching for “Canadian bacon” in the crowd.

Eventually, Madonna emerges dressed in black, wearing a diamond-ringed headdress that pops and glitters like paparazzi camera flashes. The circular stage sits atop a series of ramps and runways coursing through the crowd, and the Queen of Pop and her dancers take full advantage of them throughout the night.

She sings Nothing Really Matters before an impressive mass of dancers — around two dozen eventually — join her on stage. She rips through post-disco dance hits Everybody and, what will prove one of many show highlights, Get into the Groove. The video screens behind her and around the arena scream Manhattan in the ’80s, with images and names like the Mudd Club and more evoking her early, about-to-make-it-days in the city she moved to at 19.

During one of many “narrative breaks” in the show, Madonna straps on a guitar and tells us how she learned to play and of her subsequent CBGB debut playing the instrument.

Then she and “cast members” perform a bit that sees her and her pals denied entry to an exclusive club by rope-and-stanchion-wielding naysaying bouncers.

Madonna eventually breaches security and she and the team deliver a swirling, stylish disco-ball-sparkled version of Holiday.

She soars above the crowd in a glittering, phonebooth-sized box, singing Live to Tell while moving through screens featuring images of artists and friends lost to the AIDS epidemic.

Throughout the night, Madonna interacts with faux versions of herself dressed in styles of her various eras, from a goofy fedora-wearing kid straight out of a John Hughes teen comedy to the sultry, Marilyn Monroe-inspired vamp and more.

She “dances” a few rounds in boxing rings packed with hunky, swirling “fighters” and later ends up in a pyramid of flesh complete with topless female dancers.

Nothing about Madonna’s effort or the audience response suggests her career is close to finished, and her work, reinterpreted much of the night, still feels fresh and edgy. This is not some safe, “Casino-style” nostalgia trip but another example of an artist who remains committed to pushing boundaries, for herself and her audience.

Through the night, she brings out her son and two daughters to perform at different times — but clearly, the sense of family at a Madonna show goes well beyond the stage with close to 20,000 people happy to declare themselves her kin.