This post has been updated. See below for details.
Human contortionists festooned with wings. Robed monks, mysterious crooning priests. Gunfights in seedy hotels. Dramatized murder, with blood splattered on a billboard-sized video screen. A warrior-ninja spinning nunchuku.
These musical dramas and more highlighted pop singer Madonna’s return to Los Angeles on Wednesday night, where she appeared at the Staples Center for the first of two concerts in support of her album, “MDNA.”
And that was just in the first act.
At various times in the second and third acts she brought out a floating drum line that played while hanging from the support beams, twirled a baton in unison with dancers/cheerleaders, and comforted a troop of soldier-dancers with an acoustic guitar, fiddle, and beat-based version of “Masterpiece.”
She floated on a chrome carriage above the stage, crawled on a staircase near the audience, clasping the hand of a fan. The joyous energy that lit up one middle-aged man’s face as Madge focused her gaze on him could have powered the Staples Center.
Of course it did. She’s Madonna, and nobody does this stuff better. Not Lady Gaga, Katy Perry, Britney Spears, Ke$ha, Rihanna, Christina or any of the other generations of pop stars who have used as a model Madonna’s tightly crafted concerts/dance showcases/art projects/spectacles. Some of them may be better singers or more acrobatic, or offer cheaper ticket prices -- good seats went for more than $300 -- but nobody has proved so adept at delivering the proverbial goods as Madge.
One piece of evidence: the suggestive way in which she incorporated the chorus of Lady Gaga’s “Born This Way” into Madonna’s “Express Yourself.” Delivered as both an incitement and a generational bridge, the gesture embodied the ways in which Madonna has embraced her pop offspring.
Which is saying something, given that the album she’s supporting is one of the least challenging of her career. A mostly failed effort at continuing her chart dominance by competing with pop artists now half her age, the approach on record felt a tad desperate, less dictating the conversation than chasing it.
She front-loaded her show with tracks from "MDNA," crafting a film noir-inspired, acrobatically choreographed run of the first five songs on the album. From there, the drama built, both within her musical seductions and during breaks.
And as is her wont, she let loose on a mid-set sermon, this one focused on Russian band Pussy Riot, and the recent shooting of a 14-year-old Pakistani girl, Malala Yousafzai, allegedly at the hands of the Taliban. She protested with her voice, and with her music she shocked and awed.
Rolling on the floor during "Human Nature," she stripped to her bra and turned her back to the crowd. The seductress pulled down her pants to reveal her derriere, above which on the small of her back was written the name "Malala."
The hits continued, moving through the set like a well-crafted mixtape: "Vogue" rendered in black and white; "I'm a Sinner" saw Madonna with a guitar playing to a version that morphed into a kind of Indian raga. "Like a Prayer" featured a choir of three dozen, consisting of the dancers who over the course of the night performed feats of balletic strength and agility.
Combined, the Queen of Pop delivered a grand spectacle, almost two hours of ridiculously joyous performance. No wonder tickets were so expensive. This was some serious business that required a lot of (shirtless, muscular) manpower, and just as much feminine energy and mystique.
[Updated, 1:10 p.m.: An earlier version of this post described the show as lasting 90 minutes and ticket prices starting at more than $100.]
Follow Randall Roberts on Twitter: @liledit