As her setlist approached 20 songs deep, Madonna stopped down Thursday night’s performance at Wells Fargo Center to check in with the audience. “Are you still with me, Philly?” she hollered, to fervent cheers from the packed house. “I’m trying to tell you my life story here. It’s a lot to fit into two hours.”
As things shook out, the performance clocked two hours and fifteen minutes, and hit on the breadth of the chameleonic pop icon’s four-decade career, from “Burning Up” to “Bitch I’m Madonna.” As the night opened, the autobiographical intentions of the Celebration Tour were clearly outlined, with master of ceremonies Bob The Drag Queen (in a flowing and ornate Marie Antionette gown) narrating a rapid-fire visual montage of news clips and vintage photos on many screens draped around the arena. Atop a grid of catwalks crisscrossing the floor, Madonna and a squad of dancers strutted their stuff to a run of her early 80s material.
The music mostly moved chronologically forward as the night went on, with a central riser at the end of the arena re-creating various environments, from Manhattan nightclubs Danceteria and CBGBs to lavish modernist dance warehouses and Fashion Week style runways to, well, church. But to look at this production as her Eras Tour is a mischaracterization; it is focused as much as it’s freewheeling, intimate as much as it’s opulent, with blockbuster hits sitting alongside less-expected deep cuts, broken up several times along the way with stunning theatrical set-pieces.
It was loud, bombastic, and confrontational, from the heap of bodies writhing mid-catwalk as the sexy grind of “Justify My Love” soundtracked the scene, to the ominous cult-y shrouds and totems filling the stage on “Like A Prayer,” drawing a vague but nonetheless poignant through-line from institutional religion to societal oppression.
It was heavy and emotional, too: on the gripping power ballad “Live To Tell” from True Blue, those aforementioned projection drapes were filled with cycling images of folks, mostly artists, who passed away from HIV/AIDS: dancer Alvin Ailey, rapper Eazy-E, painter Keith Harring, photographer Robert Mapplethorpe, actress Cookie Mueller. (If this seemed a touch exploitative, it’s worth remembering that many of these were the faces of people Madonna knew, and that she used her celebrity for advocacy and allyship going back to the late 80s.)