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Review: Madonna is a superstar in a small room at the Wiltern

Madonna
Madonna, seen onstage in Tel Aviv in May, performed Wednesday night at the Wiltern in Los Angeles.
(Michael Campanella / Getty Images)

Madonna has described the title character of her latest album, “Madame X,” as a secret agent traveling the globe in disguise. Yet there was no concealing the singer’s hard-wired superstar nature Wednesday night as she brought her new tour to the Wiltern — as small a room as she’s likely played in decades, if not one free of unwanted noise.

“I know you love me, but can you be quiet?” she scolded a fan who’d dared to interrupt her at one point. “I’m in the middle of a story here.”

After countless concerts in stadiums and arenas, Madonna, 61, designed her new show for theaters where she can park the production for extended engagements. Wednesday’s gig was the first of 10 at the Wiltern, which seats about 1,800, through Nov. 25.

It’s a chance, she says, for a more intimate artistic experience (though in truth Madonna has never had trouble making an arena feel cozy). But the gambit also allows her to escape unflattering comparisons — well, some of them — to the younger pop stars who now can do more nights than she can at Staples Center or the Rose Bowl.

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For Madonna, intimate doesn’t necessarily mean focused. Like the “Madame X” album, which mingles half-formed thoughts on sex, religion, family, violence, technology and the mutable concept of home, the opening Wiltern concert was a bit of a mess. Not in terms of logistics — it started more or less on time around 11 p.m. and ended at 1:30 a.m. or so — but as far as the story she was trying to tell.

The heart of the show had to do with her life in Lisbon, where she moved in 2017 to support her son David’s interest in soccer. The relocation wasn’t easy, she said; she was lonely for months until she began going out to the city’s clubs to listen to Portugal’s dramatic fado singers and to music from that country’s former island colony of Cape Verde, off the northwest coast of Africa.

Onstage here, in a detailed replica of one of those clubs, she sang songs clearly inspired by her surroundings — including the fado-style “Killers Who Are Partying” and “Batuka,” for which she was backed by more than a dozen vocalists thwacking out a Cape Verdean beat on hand drums held between their thighs. There was also a rendition of “Sodade,” well known to fans of the late Cesária Évora, and a retooled “La Isla Bonita.” (None of this was captured on camera; Madonna banned photography Wednesday, including by the media, and required fans to place their phones in locked pouches.)

You wouldn’t say her singing was doing anything to improve on what had moved her back in Lisbon. But you could sense the depth of Madonna’s connection to the place, and you had to admire her use of the Wiltern’s space to offer her audience a taste of it.

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Yet this was just one act in a blithely disjointed production. A different section had Madonna performing “Frozen,” her techno-laced ballad from the late ’90s, behind a scrim onto which was projected a video that resembled a high-end perfume commercial starring her daughter Lourdes.

And another, set to the disco-ish “God Control” from “Madame X,” found the singer and several of her dancers in Revolutionary War garb as they battled police in modern-day riot gear. “I’ve got a lot of things I’ve got to get off my chest tonight,” she said. What some of these set pieces were supposed to mean — let alone how each was supposed to link to the others — seemed less important to Madonna than such concerns used to be.

In her mind, perhaps, the through line was simply the novelty of her outsize presence in this reach-out-and-touch-someone context. And indeed there were several amusing audience-participation bits, including one where she took a Polaroid of herself and sold it to an audience member who offered $5,000 — forced scarcity has its advantages — and one where she sauntered down from the stage to sit in an empty seat next to a guy who turned out to be the magician David Blaine.

After a version of “Like a Prayer” that made you think about how thoroughly so many of Madonna’s old transgressions have been absorbed into the pop mainstream, Wednesday’s show ended with “I Rise,” a would-be anthem from “Madame X” written in sympathy with the survivors of the 2018 school shooting in Parkland, Fla.

Here “I Rise” was accompanied by a video of news clips that broadened the song’s message to encompass all manner of progressive causes: same-sex marriage, Black Lives Matter, the need for clean drinking water in Flint, Mich. It was a lot to shoulder for a pretty flimsy tune, which is no doubt why Madonna came into the crowd again to finish it.

She still understands that proximity to power can rally people to do virtually anything.

Madonna
When: 10:30 p.m. Nov 14, 16-17, 19-21, 23-25

Where: The Wiltern, 3790 Wilshire Blvd.

Tickets: $190-$507

Info: wiltern.com

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