VANCOUVER - It is perhaps fitting that the first Madonna show in Vancouver falls on the night before Halloween.
Out on the streets, the pre-show dinner crowd resembles nothing so much as a Night of the Living Sex and the Cities, where pods of elaborately turned-out thirtysomething women range the sidewalks, three and four abreast, the sound of giggly, two-Chardonnay laughter and spike heels ringing out in the Autumn night. Eerily, the male half of the city seems to have disappeared, though some of the gaggles of girls have a token guy in tow. Inside the stadium, the haze of ladies is even thicker. Indeed, some of the men in the crowd seem to have kitted themselves in some fabulous women's wear as well. Two hours before the Queen of Pop is due to hit the stage, the air is thick with estrogen and sparkles. It is, pardon the pun, a strange Madge-ic to witness
At 9:30, just an hour after she's scheduled to perform, the stage flanked by hot pink curtains bedazzled with $2-million worth of Swarovski crystals, comes alive with a bombast of visuals and driving beats, relentlessly teasing until She appears, brandishing a sceptre and draped lasciviously across a throne.
Opening with "Candy Shop" from her most recent album, the arrival of Madonna in Vancouver, after 25 years of patient waiting, was every thing a fan could hope for. Clad in a revealing black leotard, flanked by an army of androgynous dancers and brandishing her infamously toned body like a particularly sexy weapon, the iconic 50-year-old was, well, an icon.
As if there was any doubt, the show was an eye-popping capital-s Spectacle with countless sets and costume changes. With almost ruthless efficiency, the hits were picked off one by one - a Rolls Royce (complete with a fake Kanye West as its passenger) for the recent single "Beat Goes On," a guitar and sequined top hat for "Human Nature," a bevy of lithe dancers performing the unforgettable choreography from "Vogue," a boxing ring sprung out of nowhere for "Die Another Day," a stripper pole for the singalong of "Into the Groove" - all seeming to go by in seconds. As with all things Madge, it was a show that positively bombarded the audience with stimulus. Make no mistake: Madonna will entertain you come hell or high water.
Perhaps the strangest number of the evening was "She's Not Me" in which the furious-looking singer was surrounded by dancers dressed as various versions of her throughout her career. One by one she berated them physically, ripping off Marilyn wigs and slapping cone bras. It was a jaw- dropping stunt and the first moment she seemed to connect emotionally with her songs. As disconcerting as it was to see, the indomitable pop star seemed for all the world like a woman scorned. As if it wasn't clear already, the song laid it bare: you do not want to piss off the Queen.
From then on the performance loosened a bit - the pace less hectic, and the once-Material Girl seeming to enjoy herself, especially during the campy fun of "Music."
If Madonna's astonishing work ethic was evident in every choreographed step, it was admirable but also somehow tragic. The most famous woman in the world seemed very alone onstage, surrounded by accesories but seemingly intimate only with her own drive. It was only a brief moment, observable only to a keen eye, but it resonated.
Of course, before you could contemplate it, Madonna was performing another spectacular feat, working the crowd with all her heart. If she wasn't so dazzling, you might wish she'd keep a little for herself.