Madonna hits road, and fans follow

'Drowned' tour mixes dazzling showmanship with some harsh content

Though she's long since outgrown her "Material Girl" image, what Madonna wants, Madonna gets - including sky-high ticket and merchandise prices for a live show that defines the term "extravaganza." Her current "Drowned World Tour" show is a 105-minute, sometimes-stunning, Cirque du Soleil-styled whirl of light, sound, costuming, and, of course, music and dance.

Fans from all over the country have scooped up tickets to Madonna's 12-city, 29-show American tour. On the opening night last Saturday at Philadelphia's First Union Center, fans paid up to $250 per ticket - not counting service charges or broker fees - to see their idol deliver her first live tour performances since 1993. Many also left with $45 T-shirts ($150 for the rhinestone-studded version) and $35 program books.

Not that fans hadn't already come dressed to express. They sported T-shirts displaying every incarnation of the songstress's varied personas, including her latest cowgirl getup. Cowboy hats of straw, leather, and fake fur were nearly as ubiquitous, as were baby T-shirts with rhinestones spelling out "Urban Cowgirl," "Material Girl," or simply "Madonna."

"She is an excellent marketer and consummate businesswoman," said June Gorg of Schwenksville, Pa. Ms. Gorg had brought along her teenage nephew, Randy Schwalm, who said he loved Madonna even more than boy band 'N Sync - a high compliment, according to his aunt.

"It's cool that she's still around," Schwalm said, adding, "I'm upset that I missed [her] older stuff."

Judy Oulouhojian of Broomall, Pa., has been a fan since she was a teenager, when Madonna performed in dance halls before releasing her first major album in 1983. Her young daughter, Angela, said she learned to appreciate Madonna through her mother.

"Talent bridges any age group," said another baby-boomer concertgoer, this one from Allentown, Pa., who chose to remain anonymous. Her companion, who also wished to remain anonymous, said people stay fascinated with Madonna because she's constantly changing, and they "want to see what she's up to."

The show is split into four segments, and mostly contains music from her last two electronica-infused albums: "Ray of Light" and "Music."

The first segment unveiled Madonna's slashed-kilt, tough-girl punk rock side. As "Drowned World" segued into the ballad "Substitute for Love," she writhed and gyrated with her dancers. She strummed an electric guitar during "Candy Perfume Girl" as a dancer wearing an insectlike oxygen mask appeared to strangle another dancer. It was one of many violent images incorporated into a performance in which the singer's first spoken sentence - even before "Hello, Philadelphia!" - contained an expletive.

Despite her emphasis on her new music over old hits, Madonna used imaginative devices to hold her audience's attention, including the Geisha girl-samurai "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon" segment that began with four dancers suspended by their feet, executing phenomenal aerial calisthenics during "Paradise (Not For Me)." As her image loomed on giant screens, Madonna arose in a black kimono, each 26-foot sleeve billowing like a sail, for "Frozen."

Losing the sleeves so she could dance, she then was "attacked" by a sword-wielding samurai. As she sang "Nobody's Perfect," she was vanquished by his sword.

Madonna staged a flying fight ballet during "Sky Fits Heaven." Though it was intriguing and impeccably done, it was filled with harsh images, including a rough animated Japanese anime video.

Madonna's attempt at a twangy drawl during her cowgirl segment was downright awful (she should know by now to skip the fake accents), and the Western dancing and mechanical bull-riding were overdone. But her self-accompanied acoustic-guitar delivery of "I Deserve It" and "Secret," and an energetic "Human Nature," were nonetheless impressive.

For her performance of the vintage "La Isla Bonita," Madonna strummed her guitar as a dazzling flamenco dancer clicked his heels and castanets at center stage. But her best number was the updated "Holiday," into which she injected some rapping while dancing in a fedora and fake fur coat.

Her encore, "Music," contained a fascinatingly edited video pastiche of her career, conveying just how much impact this pop-culture queen has had - and continues to have - in any incarnation.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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