By James Currie
Madonna’s new tour touts the iconic pop star’s persona in a new light. One of the main unique purposes of this theatre show dubbed, Madame X Tour, is getting up close and personal with her fans. She’s breaking new boundaries not only musically, but visually as she wants to bridge that gap between ‘out of touch pop legend’ and ‘girl at the end of the bar’. As outrageous of an act that may sound, she brings this vision closer than ever before as she walks and talks right to them each night making this tour the most accessible Madonna has ever been both physically and emotionally.
Opening night at the Chicago Theatre was the first in a seven-part micro residence for the Queen of Pop. This also marks the first time Madonna has played the small stage since her first tour in 85’ – The Virgin Tour. 2019 also marks her 40th anniversary as a musician.
From the get-go, Madonna laid out the rules for this tour, or rather guidelines on what was going to be different. Simply put, if you wanted to experience Madonna this way, Madge had some ground rules to layout. She wanted everyone to be present for the intimate night expressing how she wanted us all to be in the moment, devoid of any distractions. To get there, things have to be different. It was going to be an intimate night with a music goddess, but you had to accept a few rules first.
The first of which would be the start time. Before the show even started, buzz around town was that this was going to be a concert that didn’t start until at least 10PM (following suit to the NYC leg) and run until way after midnight. This on a school night, had many fans up in arms. The time on the tickets stated an 8:30PM start, but as we soon learned, it would’t actually start until well over 2 hours later.
The next big change was the cell phone ban that took place. Once we arrived in the building, you were greeted by someone handing out portable cell phone lockers and told to turn them off and put them inside. No cell phones whatsoever. During the performance, Madonna asked, “So how are you doing without your cellphones? I bet some of you are losing your shit not having it in hand.” She explained her reason for doing it saying,” I just want nothing to come between us tonight” furthering, “Isn’t it great not having your iPhone 11 Pro or whatever the hell you use detracting you or your neighbor from the show?” The general audience response was positive as they seemingly agreed.
It’s Madonna’s world once you enter her house and she makes it very clear who is in charge. Play by her rules and be rewarded with a night to remember. Rules that most had no problem accepting. But one more thing, those who came to hear a pop concert were in for a rude awakening. This wasn’t going to be a singing and dance routine of the hits, sure, you’ll hear some classics, but this tour was designed to be shocking, provocative and personal.
Madam X, Madonna’s latest release and current alter ego, is a tale about her departure from American and British life to her new one in Lisbon, Portugal. How’s this new character is a soccer mom in a melting pot culture that brought new life to her in the form of unknown music – Fado and Morna. The name itself, Madame X, a moniker from an early dance instructor as an homage to her ever changing identity, has been retooled to fit the eye patch wearing secret agent theme. Madonna claimed, “Madame X is not only a secret agent, but a freedom fighter, dancer, professor, housekeeper, prisoner, student, mother, child, nun, singer and a whore. A spy in the house of love.” The album itself one of her most diverse records to date with new influences from Latin, Trap and Experimental Art Pop. Just from the sounds of the records alone, we knew we were going to experience something different.
Officially kicking off at 10:45PM (and later ending around 1:30AM), the lights went down and the stage came alive with words being projected, typed out across a great scrim curtain. Mimicked out by a silhouetted woman at a typewriter to pounding beats and a dancer taking the opposite stage miming the words by James Baldwin in interpretive dance. At the end of each line typed, gun shots rang out after each segment and time was reset altering his performance take on things, repeating with text changes while avoiding being taken down. The resounding statement taken from this performance being – artists exist to disturb the peace. And until that conclusion was made strong, this was Madonna’s banner of hope.
The first song we get starts off with and almost Studio 54 vibe. “God Control” where Madonna and company danced under an enormous disco ball along exaggerated pyramid set piece. The production itself was a multimedia marvel filled with video projections that converged in distorted ways filling abstract structures, bringing musical guest to life and creating resounding scenic scapes. The lighting was used in a way that turn a dark theatre stage into a moonlit night or created a bright Portuguese day break even an African Serengeti. It was a concert theatrical experience like no other with gigantic modular set pieces that doubled as east coast urban street scenes and southwestern European cafes. Madonna and her performance troupe could be found up and down the isles singing, dancing and conversing with fans as they passed by throughout the night.
Madame X live was divided into 5 main acts, proving this was clearly more of a musical theatre show than a pop concert. It seemed designed as a soap box presentation for Madonna to preach this tale from. Not in a ‘me vs. you’ way, but more why these topics are important to her, how she drew these conclusions as well as still keeping things entertaining while keeping the audience interested.
All in total, we got 22 songs from Madonna. Many from the new album, a few classics and even a couple covers. The mix was right. The variety was there. The flow of the show itself worked until the breaks.
It was the in between segments where we got to know Madonna on a personal level that was off. Where she reached out to bring us in closer to her world. It was exciting to hear from her direct like having a drink at a bar with a friend. But that’s not to say the audience participation went off without a hitch. There were moments of unease and tension that was quite palpable. When she broke from Madonna the singer, to Madonna the person, it didn’t always work well.
For example, during the first, overly long break in the set, Madonna was seated behind a makeup mirror complexly out of view of the audience. She sat in her chair and talked to us while we waited for her to presumably change into the next costume. We got the occasional call out from fans who didn’t necessarily agree with the direction she was taking. Throughout the dark and quite theatre, you could randomly hear shout outs like, “Get Into The Groove!” and “Ok, we get it!” as at least a few wanted more music and less talk. The breaks themselves were longer than many expected. Something needed to happen to keep it all moving, but that didn’t always happen. It felt like almost 50% of the show was conversations. The odd interactions continued throughout the night, though limited. One other one that stood out was during a point of the show when Madonna was expressing how cold the Midwest was and how she couldn’t understand how we (Midwesterners) could deal with it, one fan reminded her, “Uh, you’re from Detroit.”
The music would start again after each break. The stage set slightly different with props and lighting. The mood was set with each scene taking us from gritty New York streets to warm Lisbon clubs under the stars. Just as we were getting our groove on, the scene would end and it was back to the audience banter. Sometimes only getting a just a few songs in before the change.
At other points during her discussions, she would talk about things like people she’s met around the world and how they’ve influenced her, telling us how we should open up and expand our minds getting out of our comfort zones, travel to places that we might normally go and the inevitable Trump rips, which was meet with always met great response. When there was a negative response to something she said or did she responded in true Madonna fashion with her quick wit and sass as only she can. She’d come back with responses like, “Fuck off, it’s my show”, “I’ve never heard that one before” and “Is that all you’ve got”.
Another awkward point of the show was during her talk about female productive rights saying, “It’s my choice.” Asking how her fans felt about it. Well someone in the front row didn’t agree with her views and she addressed him personally, calling him out and explaining why it’s not his choice but every woman’s on their own.
The show continues and fades in and out of more tracks from Madam X. That’s not to say we don’t get any classic Madonna tracks, but when we do, they are reworked to fit the plays motif. A string intro to “Papa Don’t Preach”, a more subdued “Vogue” and moving rendition of “Frozen” that featured her daughter Lourdes dancing on the video scrim around her while she stood center stage under a low-lit light, reaching out to her as she seemingly flew by.
The only other real qualm I had with this production was the excessive autotune / vocoder vocals. Many of the songs on ‘Madame X’ have it and it works for those parts on the record, like with “God Control”. But with so many other selections of this performance adding it, it just didn’t work and became a little annoying. Madonna has an incredible mezzo-soprano vocal range, this cheapened her sonic prose and left many questioning why as her vocal timber is what put her on the map.
Madonna was witty, strong and naughty. The same provocateur we’ve come to know and love these past few decades. We learned that today she apparently loves to drink more than usual as she claimed, “I’m an alcoholic and come from a long line of alcoholics.” Explaining that her family are all drunks and since she moved to Lisbon, has found a new appreciation for the naughty spirts. She still has a sailor mouth and is as sassy as ever. She loves to talk about herself and show off her vagina. At one point, taking polaroid pictures of herself, grinding it into her crotch and auctioning it off to the highest bidder (which was $3600 cash by the way) that was a show in itself. At times, I felt like I was at a Vegas show. The main point of the entertainment was fantastic, but randomly went off kilter from time to time and took you out of the moment.
Ms. Ciccone continues the show reassuring us how much her new home has influenced her by bringing out several guest musicians like a group of Batuque singers from Cape Verde and guitarist, Gaspar from Lisbon who was the grandson of a deceased friend. Bringing things full circle on the family and friends front, Madge also brought out her twin’s Estere & Stella who joined in the singing and dancing even giving their stance on the #metoo movement. The show ends with the uplifting, tear jerking anthem “I Rise”.
‘Madame X’ was seemingly made to be a stage production much in the same way The Who’s ‘Tommy’ or Green Day’s ‘American Idiot’ worked. I’m not saying it’s reached that caliber, as good as it was, there were a few misguided directions. It started strong, but with a relatively short music acts, kind of petered out at times. The in between transitions, the ‘getting to know you’ segments, didn’t always work as outlined above but was a great part of this formula that had to be there. I’m guessing some of the slow points and long breaks were attributed to her recent fall where she hurt her leg and postponed the tour slightly. Just a guess, but makes sense.
There’s a reason Madonna is the highest grossing solo touring artist of all time. With productions like ‘Madame X’ coming from the Material Girl, there’s no reason that will ever change, unless Madonna wills it. I’m excited to see where she goes from here. She has said she’d like to do an even more stripped down tour that could be club dates where she sits on a bar stool with a guitar and sings stripped down versions of her classics. That would truly bring things full circle for the mega pop star and be something I know I would invest any amount of time and a cell phone ban for. Let’s see what the next 40 years brings.
For more on the Madame X Tour, click here
Setlist: Madonna live in Chicago at The Chicago Theatre (opening night) 10-16-19