“Stop raping the matriarchy!” Madonna, clad in a sequin-encrusted Revolutionary war costume, shouted to the sold-out crowd at the Brooklyn Academy of Music’s Howard Gilman Opera House on Thursday night. Like the Madame X character she crafted for her 14th album, the Madonna who has opted for a theater residency after 37 years of touring stadiums and arenas is playing with multiple dualities. And like the alter-egos at the center of the album that dominates the concert, the show itself has a range of identities: at times it’s performance art, a political rally, a comedy show, a church and even her home in Lisbon, which inspired the record. And Madonna is everything from a political activist and a spy to a comedian and a “cha-cha” dancer on the stage. So why not mix sequins with a getup Thomas Jefferson might have sported while trying to protect women’s rights?
As she never really lets you forget, Madonna is calling the shots with “Madame X,” this show and plenty else besides. And for her, that means attempting to use her privilege and power to enact change while still owning her artistry, even if it is inexplicable at times.
Like the first two nights of Madonna’s residency — which opened Tuesday but waited till Thursday to invite the press — attendees were required to lock up their phones for the entirety of the two-hour-plus performance. “I’m not here to be loved — I’m here to be free,” she says during the show, and part of that freedom apparently means not being photographed on anyone’s cellphone. Still, she knows the rule is controversial, so she takes the opportunity to auction off one Polaroid selfie she takes on stage to an audience member for $1,000 (on opening night, the buyer was Rosie O’Donnell).
Another part of being free is playing a set focused on the present and dominated by new material, as she has done for most of her tours in recent years. While longtime fans were probably prepared for this, it’s almost cruel: The few songs from Madge’s earlier career that she performs, including “Express Yourself” and “Papa Don’t Preach,” are largely cut to under a minute, while her “Madame X” tracks are performed in full. One couldn’t help but get the sense that the words in her recent song “Future” rang true for some members of the audience: “Not everybody’s coming to the future.”
The present Madonna is also 61, and the move from stadiums and arenas to a more intimate setting reflects that as well. She’s more than capable of dancing, but the demanding routines and choreography that a stadium tour would require may be off the table. Instead, the set is steeped in political commentary. For the opening of the set, she provides another duality: a James Baldwin credo and gunshots to introduce her anti-firearm disco anthem “God Control,” which sees the pop icon prompting the audience to “wake up.” Soon enough, she’s taken on an espionage persona in “I Don’t Search I Find” with a noir-style narrative where the vocoder is an interrogation tool and is hiding in plain sight as a blonde-bombshell spy with “Vogue.” Later she becomes a Lisbon club singer, putting her own spin on Portuguese genre “fado” backed by the guitarra-playing grandson of late fado singer Celeste Rodrigues, Gaspar Varela, and invite a group of batuque musicians to support her for “Batuka.”
Whether it’s more sequins — on nun garb during a choir-backed performance of “Like a Prayer” — or altering her famous lyric “I’m keeping my baby” to “I’m not keeping my baby” on “Papa Don’t Preach,” even the small moments of nostalgia are brought into the “Madame X” era and ethos. Yet, the most undeniably striking moment of the evening was a performance of “Frozen” where the legend sat inside a black and white hologram of her daughter Lourdes reimagining the song’s 1998 music video, bringing the stirring ballad into the present.
Of course, Madonna’s fight for “freedom” comes with creative risks. Some, like “Frozen,” pay off. Others are clunky, like when she does the Hustle in the aforementioned Revolutionary War costume during “God Control” while being bounced between two police officers’ shields. She touts female empowerment in unusual ways, with lines like “This is what it’s like to have Mozart coming out of my pussy,” getting the audience to chant “I’m not sorry,” and having her young daughter Esther declaring #Time’s Up to the audience.
By the end of the evening, the themes reach a closure: The show’s early gunshots are answered by a rallying cry for community with “I Rise,” which begins with an excerpt of a recorded speech by Parkland shooting survivor and activist Emma González. It’s Madonna’s warrior stance — one that includes exiting the stage via the aisle with an all-female choir.
And with that, a show full of extremes — and that, on its three opening nights, began at nearly 11 p.m. and ended after 1 a.m — comes to an end. Earlier in the evening Madonna turned on the charm and apologized for the lateness. “I’m sorry to keep you waiting tonight,” she smiled. “I have a lot of wigs. I have six kids. I’ll never do it again.” And once this tour concludes, she probably won’t — at least not at an opera house in Brooklyn.