Images of a staircase seemingly inspired by Fritz Lang’s “Metropolis.” A Latin-accented beat that echoed Madonna’s “La Isla Bonita.” Sharply angled shoulder pads like the ones David Bowie wore during his Ziggy Stardust phase.
These were just some of the many pop-culture references Lady Gaga threw at her audience — and in a sequence of just three songs — Tuesday night at the Forum, where the singer brought her latest world tour for the first of three concerts.
A multimedia extravaganza with costume changes, slick video interludes and a network of movable bridges that connected the main stage to a second platform at the rear of the arena, the two-hour show offered plenty of the flash and theater that have been Lady Gaga’s specialty since she emerged nearly a decade ago with high-concept singles such as “Poker Face” and “Bad Romance.”
Yet this tour, which launched last week and will continue through mid-December, follows the star’s 2016 album, “Joanne,” which she’s called her most personal work. She reiterated that idea Tuesday in a long story she told about the real-life Joanne, an aunt whose death at a young age made a dramatic impact on her family; Lady Gaga described the record as her attempt to explore the pain passed down from her grandparents to her parents to the singer and her sister.
So in addition to the elaborate set pieces her fans expect — “Bloody Mary,” for instance, had the look of a spirited satanic orgy — Tuesday’s performance featured a number of smaller moments, including the new album’s title track, for which Lady Gaga perched on a stool and accompanied herself on acoustic guitar. (True, she was basically dressed as Captain Jack Sparrow. But still.)
What was surprising was how much more effective the intimate episodes were than the rest of the concert. Not because Lady Gaga had never stripped down before; she’s been peppering her gigs with piano ballads for years, eager to demonstrate her vocal chops to anybody convinced her singing is a studio creation.
But in the past those moments were often the phoniest, as though she’d entered a kind of stage-school zombie state. At April’s Coachella festival, the singer began her headlining set with a thrilling 45-minute sprint through some of her highest-energy, most provocative material — then brought the production to a standstill when she sat down behind a keyboard and turned her song “The Edge of Glory” into showy but unfeeling cabaret.
Here, in contrast, she was funny and poignant as she did the new record’s “Come to Mama” at a glowing piano positioned on that smaller stage. “Joanne” was disarmingly tender, with a blend of grief and hope that felt lived, not rehearsed.
Even “The Edge of Glory,” which she again performed by herself, seemed reawakened to the transformative sensations the song describes. Halfway through the tune, Lady Gaga paused to say a few words about a friend who’d recently died, then started back in on what appeared to be the wrong chord. Yet the mistake hardly fazed her; she was plugged deeply into the music’s emotion, not at all worried by the demands of precision.
Indeed, the show’s bigger numbers — those with lights and choreography and a muscular backing band — suggested she’s begun to tire of carefully synchronizing all those moving parts. In busy old hits like “LoveGame” and “Telephone,” Lady Gaga put across little visible excitement, while “Bad Romance” had her wearing an oversized pair of winged glasses, perhaps to disguise a look of utter boredom in her eyes.
And you could almost hear the regret in “The Cure,” a laughably trendy electro-pop single she released in the wake of “Joanne’”s underwhelming commercial performance.
Lady Gaga closed Tuesday’s concert with an appealingly raw rendition of the new album’s country-ish “Million Reasons,” and here she interrupted herself for another aside, in this case to congratulate her audience for watching her halftime show at this year’s Super Bowl.
Her point seemed to be about the message of inclusion her fans had sent with their enthusiasm, the way they’d helped make a once-rigid American institution safe for Lady Gaga’s embrace of all kinds.
But really she was just reminding us that she’d played the Super Bowl — one clear sign that superstar razzle-dazzle dies hard.