The most shocking thing about Madonna’s “Rebel Heart” tour, which opened at Montreal’s Bell Centre Wednesday, had nothing to do with sex. (How could it at this late date?)
And it had nothing to do with religion (though she did offer such token Madonna-esque stunts as nuns on stripper poles and dancers gyrating on holy crosses).
Instead the surprise of the show came in smiles.
Throughout nearly the entire two hour event, Madonna could barely stop grinning. For anyone who has followed Madonna tours from the start, the sight of it couldn’t help but startle. Never a warm live performer, Madonna tends to grimace through her concerts, stressing athleticism and discipline over all. This time, she seemed to having a blast. It made for an infectious night that brought the Canadian crowd to a series of spontaneous, and escalating, standing ovations. It didn’t hurt that she sang “La Vie En Rose,” both in French and in bold voice.
The bright tone of the show made for a striking contrast to the star’s last tour, “MDNA,” a dark and violent affair that often ended up puzzling to boot. “Rebel Heart” had no such pretense. In fact, it may be Madonna’s lightest roadshow to date.
That’s not at all to say it’s unsubstantial. On the contrary, the triumph of the “Rebel Heart” tour is how it finds Madonna taking ownership of her legacy with an unprecedented maturity
She began that approach on her like-named album, which found her in a newly self-referential mode.
Madonna mirrored that here by featuring no fewer than nine of its tracks, including the show’s opener, “Iconic.” For this initial section of the show, Madonna drew on her time-honored mingle of the erotic and the reverent. Her twenty dancers, dolled up as medieval warriors, bore cross-topped weapons. In a more slow and graceful take on “Vogue” Renaissance images of religious figures replaced movie stars while Madonna and her dancers posed at The Last Supper table.
While the star used to position such displays as pointed social commentary, here they seemed to have more to do with simply reasserting her own long history with them.
Madonna delved deeper into her personal story in the second act, which found her on the hood of a ’60s Chevy in an auto repair shop, a clear reference to her Detroit roots. She emphasized a rare sincerity here by singing the unashamedly romantic “True Blue,” while accompanying herself on, of all things, a ukulele.
Madonna came the closest she’s ever going to get to a “greatest hits” display in the third act, where she offered touchstones from “Lucky Star” to “Everybody.” The latter she hasn’t performed live since the early ’90s.
Even so, none of the older songs sounded anything like they had on album. To suit the matador-theme’d theatrical accompanyment, Madonna reimagined them as Spanish-tinged ballads.
Madonna included in her run of oldies “Who’s That Girl,” which she delivered as a solo acoustic ballad. After singing it, she admitted that it took her a hell of a long time to answer just who this particular girl may be. Then, she went into “Rebel Heart,” a song about the joy of self-discovery. That theme allowed Madonna to run through a wide range of characters in the show – including a ’20 French cabaret star – while maintaining a solid through-line.
It also helped her pull off what may have been the show’s most stunning move. When performing “Like a Virgin,” she appeared on the gaping stage entirely alone, dancing with a freedom and even an innocence, that made her, at 57, seem once again new.