Madonna Expertly Touts Irreverence, Cultural Immersion on Rebel Heart Tour at MSG: Concert Review

Photos by Paul Familetti
A two-hour spectacle of new sounds and refreshed throwbacks that left even the most repeated ticketholder of the singer surprised and fulfilled.

After Amy Schumer's opening set, the seasoned musician staged an orgy above a Last Supper table, fronted fan and flamenco dance numbers and debuted new spins on classics like "Material Girl."

"I'm feeling very nostalgic — do you people understand that I played Madison Square Garden thirty years ago?" Madonna told those on her Rebel Heart Tour during her first of two nights at the storied venue. "I'm so lucky to have survived this long and I couldn't have done it without all of you. I want to acknowledge the support and love you've given me for over three decades."

And she did just that, showcasing her years of creative vision and onstage expertise to deliver an arena show packed with visual variety, thematic theatrics and inventive instrumentation to refresh even her earliest hits. A half-tempo version of "Material Girl" while tossing male dancers down a sloped LCD screen? Or a full-on flamenco rendition of "La Isla Bonita" complete with stomps, claps and shouts?  What about "Burning Up" with the headliner shredding hard on an electric guitar? Madonna's Rebel Heart Tour was nothing short of a spectacle that left even the most repeated ticketholder of the singer surprised and fulfilled.

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With Jennifer Lopez, Ariana Grande and Amy Schumer in the audience (fresh off her opening set and ready to jump onstage with Madonna during "Unapologetic Bitch") — amid lifelong fans donning lace, leather and even "Living for Love"-like bull horns — the two-hour show set her Rebel Heart tracks in various worlds, first introducing audiences to an Asian-inspired regime for the "revolution" of the album's track, "Iconic." Emerging from a descending iron cage, Madonna donned an ornate kimono-like robe with wide sequin-lined sleeves, and soon led a graceful dance interlude with oversized red fans and martial arts moves. She later opted for bolero vests, lace corsets and floral dresses for a Spain-inspired section, complete with choreography that saw her as a matador with a silk red muleta and a moment to share few audience greetings in Spanish.

To spotlight her latest album, Madonna went aggressively for the religiously irreverent, as she gyrated alongside pole-dancing, scantily-clad nuns, staged an orgy atop a Last Supper table and straddled a priest in the middle of the cross-like stage. And at one point, the venue became a roaring jazz club, with cigars, fringe, a tabletop tap dance interlude, a filming bar fight and a female Charlie Chaplin, plus a performance of "La Vie En Rose" in French.

The show's most successful section was a fun and flirty Southern setup, with Madonna wearing jeans and a sweet gingham shirt and trading in her smolder for a smile. First rolling around atop a car (and some men) for Rebel Heart's "Body Shop," the singer strummed a ukulele from atop a pile of tires for a heartwarming "True Blue" and added some line dancing and piggy back rides to a well-received "Deeper and Deeper."

"Like my grandma always says, if it's got tits or tires, it's gonna give you trouble," she told the audience with a country twang, still donning the scene’s character and before "fixing" to sing an old song, she said. "I know I'm not as funny as Amy Schumer but I'm trying!" And after dramatically performing a blend of her ballads "HeartBreakCity" and "Love Don’t Live Here Anymore," she happily skipped across a completely empty stage for a percussive and lighthearted "Like a Virgin."

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When it comes to putting on a show, Madonna leaves no detail unnoticed. Rather than shoving a slew of titillating visuals onstage under endlessly flashing strobe lights and gimmicks, the seasoned entertainer presents thoroughly-developed stagings that are immersive, inherently vibrant and — when applicable — ethnically respectful. Each song includes its own quick transformation, mood and thematic variation, with the singer usually removing an article of clothing to therefore debut a new costume. Though some dialogue bits fell flat, lightning-length skits have her effortlessly slipping into vivid characters, each with a different voice and personality. And during wardrobe changes — a moment when other headliners leave it to video clips, onstage DJs or instrumental solos to simply hold over the crowd — Madonna's dancers served impressive spectacles that left the crowd gasping in awe, as they leaned wildly into the audience from atop ten-foot stilts. It's arguable that her changeover dance sequences and stunts are more entertaining than other performers' entire sets.

The high caliber of arena show that Madonna delivers isn't a feat attainable by many. "Finally, I made it to the top — thank you!" she said during a pause in "Music." "You know what they say: it's lonely at the top, but it ain't crowded."

Set list:

Bitch I’m Madonna
Burning Up
Holy Water
Devil Pray
Body Shop
True Blue
Deeper and Deeper
La Isla Bonita
Dress You Up/Get Into the Groove/Lucky Star
Who’s That Girl
Rebel Heart
Music/Candy Shop
Material Girl
Unapologetic Bitch