Times Pop Music Critic

Alert the mail room.

After maintaining that “Sgt. Pepper” was (by Beatles standards) bad, I’m back with a view that’s going to seem even more unlikely: Madonna is good.


Pop’s Material Girl began a North American tour before an estimated 60,000 fans Saturday night at the Orange Bowl here with a show that was richly staged, marvelously paced and, most crucially, warmly spirited.


Though the 90-minute affair was brightened by frequent costume changes and stylish choreography, it wasn’t merely a victory for showmanship. The most convincing moment was also the most intimate.

Standing motionless in a single spotlight, Madonna sang “Live to Tell,” one of the evening’s few ballads, with a delicate, embracing feeling that few of even her biggest fans would have imagined possible five years ago when the colorful, controversial singer skipped on to the pop charts with some cute but lightweight dance hits.

At that time, Madonna’s success seemed based far more on personality (an aggressive, fantasy-oriented sexuality that attracted an army of dress-alike Madonna wanna-be’s) and the help of recording studio pros than talent (the voice on those records appeared quite thin).

Though she has now sold an estimated 30-million records, she’s still trying to break out of the original bimbo image. To millions of skeptical adults, she is little more than a passing media curio, like Donna Rice or, even more so, Tammy Bakker.


Count on it, however: Madonna at 28 is a fixture on the entertainment scene--a point underscored by an endearing and triumphant performance here that combined the liberating enthusiasm exhibited in Bette Midler’s early shows and the show-business dedication--minus the histrionics--of Liza Minnelli.

Not bad for a show that came within minutes of being canceled. . . .

The mostly teen-age and overwhelmingly female audience all but gasped as the man at the microphone began an announcement at 8 p.m., “Due to technical problems . . . “

The fans, many of whom said they had been waiting for years to see Madonna, had worried all the rainy afternoon that the outdoor concert would be canceled. The downpour and wind had been so intense as late as 4:30 p.m. that there was talk around the city of a tornado watch. Disc jockeys warned listeners that the chance of the concert being held was no better than 50-50.


Still, the fans--many of them wearing surplus-store parkas--had come anyway, willing to sit through anything to see their heroine. “Don’t cancel, don’t cancel,” shrieked a cluster of girls in the grandstand as the man continued his announcement.

“Due to technical problems . . . Level 42 (the opening act) will not appear tonight. . . . But Madonna will be here.”

The cheering fans were so relieved that they sat patiently for 90 minutes as workmen dried the stage, relying mostly on back-pack heating devices.

Like Genie Taylor, 16, and her sister Kathleen, 18, many fans passed the time talking about the star of the evening.


Madonna has made a lot of headlines since the two girls saw her in 1985 at the 3,000- capacity Sportatorium in nearby Hollywood. She got married to actor Sean Penn (who was here with her), made a controversial record (“Papa Don’t Preach”) that was criticized by some as irresponsible for encouraging unwed teen-agers to have babies, made a flop movie with Penn(“Shanghai Surprise”) and moved toward a more sophisticated image built around a ‘50s starlet look.

“I like the fact that she does what she wants to do,” said Taylor, who attends, she swears, a girls’ high school called Madonna Academy (“People are always making jokes,” she said, “like asking if the school is named after Madonna”). She and Kathleen especially like the “Papa Don’t Preach” song and video.

“She used to have this image of being kind of slutty,” said Kathleen, “but that song showed a serious and sensitive side.”

About her more sophisticated dress and swept-back, Lana Turner hair style, Kathleen added, “She’s a lot more mature. It’s easier to tell people now that you like Madonna. They don’t look at you funny.”


Sitting high in the grandstand, Victoria Thomas, 24, said she thinks Madonna has real talent, but that most adults see her as simply a novelty--"someone who uses sex to get the attention of men.”

Pointing at the high percentage of women around her, she said, “Just look at the crowd. it’s mostly girls. They see the humor in what she does. All that ‘boy-toy’ stuff. . . . It’s like acting out your fantasies in a harmless way. But there’s something else they also see. . . . A woman who has made it in a man’s world. I heard somebody on the radio today say she’s the first woman to headline a stadium tour. I think that’s part of her appeal. She’s a model.”

Madonna--whose tour comes to Anaheim Stadium July 18 and is part of a high exposure summer that also includes an August movie, “Who’s That Girl?"--looks cold and unapproachable on the cover of the current issue of C o smopolitan: gold evening dress, gold hair and gold dangling earrings.

On stage, however, she came across Saturday as a most gracious yet determined hostess in a show--choreographed by Jeffrey (“Flashdance”) Hornaday--that has the sleek, even at times slick feel of a Broadway revue whose theme is celebration.


“Open up your heart,” sang Madonna as she raced back and forth across the stage during the first number.

“If you gave me half a chance you’d see,” the invitation in the lyrics continued, “my desire burning inside of me. . . . Don’t try to resist.”

From the start, the singer--looking a good 20 pounds slimmer than on her 1985 tour--proved a much stronger singer and more graceful dancer than on her first tour. Her seven-piece band played hard-edged, percussion-focused dance music, and she was joined by male dancers occasionally. She also used a moving sidewalk to great advantage, creating a bit of Michael Jackson’s “moonwalk” effect.

Wearing a skimpy black corset at the start of the show, Madonna fueled her sex-kitten image. Two numbers later, however, she stepped playfully into a ‘50s prom dress to reflect the innocence of “True Blue,” one of her most engaging hits, and then put a black leather jacket over the dress for “Papa Don’t Preach.” In an apparent acknowledgement of the controversy surrounding the song, the words “safe sex” were flashed on a huge screen at the back of the stage.


Without slowing the pace, the singer continued to step in and out of costumes to accent the themes of the songs: a delightfully wacky Cyndi Lauper-type party dress to stress the humor of “Material Girl,” and later a Spanish cabaret dress to salute the Latin party flavor of “La Isla Bonita.”

At the end, Madonna returned to re-emphasize the show’s celebrative theme with a sing-along rendition of “Holiday.”

Despite sometimes mediocre material, Madonna has put together a winning package that seems almost too sophisticated much of the time for her teen-age fans. Yet she delivers the hits with an enthusiasm and love of performance that audiences, regardless of age, should find hard to resist.

Even this tour may not be enough, however, to erase the public suspicion of this ambitious young singer. In initially reaching for stardom, she took a calculated gamble in creating a strong, controversial image. The question now is whether pure talent is enough to make people see past that image.