Madonna at PPG Paints Arena: A Spectacular Retrospective

Madonna in concert in London on her current Celebrations tour accompanied on piano by daughter Mercy James. (Photo: Chris Weger and Wikipedia)

Madonna in concert in London on her current Celebrations tour accompanied on piano by daughter Mercy James. (Photo: Chris Weger and Wikipedia)

The multi-talented artist, Madonna Louise Ciccone, popularly known as Madonna, brought her It’s a Celebration tour to PPG Paints Arena Monday night. The musician, dancer, and cultural influencer’s production was like a theater musical. Madonna led the packed house of concertgoers through the legendary eras of her long career. Those were viewed through thematic elements celebrating life, death, religion, social issues, sexuality, and family, all staged through song, dance and dramatic scenes, backed by projected visuals and set on an incredible stage that both revolved and climbed to the rafters.

The crowd realized the concert was about to start when Michael Jackson’s “You Wanna Be Starting Something” began to play. Bob the Drag Queen then warmed up the crowd and wandered around the floor, promoting Madonna and hilariously interacting with various audience members.  

Madonna entered the stage on a circular rotating platform. It moved her from the left of the stage to the center. She was dressed in black with a sparkly crystal headpiece. It matched the overhead stage design. “Nothing Really Matters” opened the show. 

The eras started with Madonna’s fledgling career in the early ‘80’s performing in New York City. The video screens showed early ads promoting her appearances at various clubs. A black and white artwork outline of the New York City skyline was also seen. To the enjoyment of the audience she played the songs “Everybody,” and “Into the Groove.” Her talented dancers were also performing. Madonna was dressed in a short skirt and bustier, and the dancers wore club clothes.

Madonna strutted all the way out on one of the walkways and greeted the audience, “Thank you Pittsburgh, good to be back. I have history with this place, I have family here. I came here every summer.” She added later that her dad grew up in Aliquippa in a farmhouse where her grandfather, an Italian immigrant, worked in the steel mill. Every summer Madonna and her family would travel there from Detroit to help her grandparents fix up the farmhouse. The crowd applauded her local roots.

She then asked the crowd, “Are you ready to hear the story of my life? I’ve learned a lot, failed a lot, succeeded a lot, and survived.”  

Introducing “Burning Up” Madonna stated, “I was sick of being a broke-ass dancer and decided to become a musician. Thank God, divine inspiration. “Burning Up” was the first song that I wrote and played on my electric guitar. I performed it at a little, disgusting club on the Lower East Side, CBGB’s.” For “Burning Up” she played a black Gibson Les Paul electric guitar, even adding a little wah-wah effect. 

For “Holiday” the scene was Madonna and her dancers trying to get into a hot dance club. and were working the doorman to let them in. The doorman told Madonna you have to be sexy and on the list. After a little more discussion Madonna and the dancers were let into the club. A large disco ball dropped down and they all started dancing. This song set helped to further satisfy the audience’s hunger for ‘80s Madonna hits. People were up and dancing.

One touching segment showcased people that have succumbed to the AIDS epidemic. The video screens showed projected images of such beloved notables as Keith Haring and Sylvester, as well as lesser known folks. Madonna was lifted up in a box that was transparent on the sides and moved about by an overhead gantry crane. As the box floated overhead, Madonna sang “Live to Tell” to the audience and the people in the photos. The box was used to great effect several times during the concert. 

For “Like a Prayer,” also in the second set, male dancers gyrated inside a revolving carousel  with individual compartments as white outlined crosses were displayed across the back of the stage. Madonna sang in several different compartments as the set piece rotated. An electric guitar solo ended the song. 

Madonna really explored sexuality in the song/scene for “Hung Up” with several topless male and female dancers going through their dance moves. 

Madonna performed “Bad Girl” accompanied by her daughter, Mercy James, on grand piano. It made for a welcome quieter moment in a high energy show. Several of Madonna’s other children performed. All are quite good. 

In Vogue

For “Vogue” Madonna and the dancers put on a runway fashion show with several funky outfits. Madonna sat at the end of the runway in a chair and at one point engaged in simulated sex with one of the models/dancers. She then held up a scorecard that had the number 10 on it, laughing and signaling her satisfaction. Another song had Madonna with a person who was mirroring her every move including touching her in an intimate way. 

Other highlights were “Crazy for You” (which featured an onstage fire at the end of the song), “Don’t Cry for Me Argentina,” and an acoustic version of “Express Yourself.” For the latter number Madonna was dressed in a skimpy western cowgirl outfit complete with hat. She performed the number on her acoustic guitar. 

Another fantastic performance was the combined “Bedtime Story” and “Ray of Light.” The beginning of “Bedtime Story” saw Madonna out on the center walkway in the middle of the floor. As she sang, a riser took her about 20 feet up. After a few minutes she laid down on the riser and continued to sing until a dancer in the gantry crane box came and exchanged places with her. She then went away in the box while segueing into “Ray of Light,” a fantastic dance song with “block rockin beats” and one that I wasn’t familiar with before the show. Near the end of the song a laser light display dazzled the arena. Madonna was dressed in a silver one-piece jumpsuit and wore sunglasses. That was followed by “Rain” which also sounded great.

Michael Jackson’s “Billie Jean” served as the intro to “Like a Virgin.” Photos of Madonna and Jackson, both looking very happy together, were displayed on the video screens. Silhouette figures of Madonna and Jackson singing the two songs, almost like in a friendly battle, gave way to the Madonna figurine singing “Like a Virgin.” Curiously, I didn’t see Madonna on the stage singing the song. The silhouette sang the song. Maybe it was Madonna, “maybe it was Memorex (tape).” The closing number, “Bitch I’m Madonna,” was part bravado and part tongue-in cheek sendup. It was a fun ending to an amazing performance and extremely well produced show. Aside from wearing a knee brace for some numbers, Madonna looked and sounded great. Viva Madonna!  

Closing Thoughts

There was no band; Madonna sang to recorded music. Her guitars and instruments played by others were live. The recorded bass track was almost overpowering, maybe to give a dance club effect, but sometimes at the expense of the clarity of Madonna’s vocals. The show started at 10:05 p.m. and ran for two hours and fifteen minutes. Almost everyone stayed until the end at 12:20 a.m. Madonna has become known for her later starts, but, hey, she’s Madonna. And it sure was fun to see all the different Madonna-style outfits audience members wore.

Rick Handler is the executive producer of Entertainment Central.


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