She also explained the reason for the show's tardy 11 p.m. start time: 'I have an injury. I have six children. I have a lot of wigs.'

By Leah Greenblatt
September 20, 2019 at 11:02 AM EDT

“You guys know who Madame X is by now, right?” Madonna asked the crowd midway through her set last night at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, her diamanté eyepatch glinting in the stage lights. “She’s an equestrian, a head of state, a cha cha instructor, a whore, a saint.”

She’s also Madonna Louise Ciccone, of course, and she is an entertainer; a job she’s held, essentially without pause, for nearly four decades. Though never quite as happy-go-loosely as she seems to be doing at this limited series of shows: a freewheeling two hours and 15 minutes of song and dance and conversation in a 2,000-seat venue so intimate, she might stop to steal a sip of your beer — which she did more than once, from a bedazzled fan.

Michael Campanella/Getty Images

It’s called the Madame X Tour, so it’s not surprising that the evening pulls largely from that album, her 14th, released this past June. But Madonna is nothing if not a canny keeper of her own flame, and several stone classics from her catalog made their way into the setlist, as well as several lesser but still beloved (particularly to this self-selected crowd) hits.

For nearly every “God Control” and “Killers Who Are Partying” from X, there was a segue to the past: “Dark Ballet” into 1995’s “Human Nature,” in which she spun herself like a gymnastic clock inside a circular wall inset, or “I Don’t Search I Find” yielding to a spare reprise of “Papa Don’t Preach,” its circa-1986 chorus defiantly changed to “I’m not keeping my baby,” and followed by a short, fierce disquisition on reproductive rights.

Though some two dozen songs manage to appear in whole or in part, she often stopped to interact during costume changes or between numbers, confiding that moving to Lisbon to become a soccer mom (her son David attended an intensive sports academy there) had left her bored and lonely, and then led her to the city’s fado clubs; dropping dirty jokes (“Amy Schumer told me to tell that one, so if you don’t like it, blame her”); and even dipping into the audience more than once for a get-to-know-you chat (Carol the accountant and Dan from Clapham, you live among immortals now).

As befitting an artist who has spent so much of her career exploring other cultures, there were touches of them everywhere: Gaspar Varela, the young grandson of fado legend Celeste Rodrigues, guesting on guitar; the all-female singing troupe from the island-nation of Cape Verde, known for centuries as a hub of the transatlantic slave trade, who joined her, joyfully, on the rhythmic celebration “Batuka.” A rotating cast of gorgeous multi-culti dancers and musicians appeared in everything from nun’s habits (for the string section) and Midsommar chic (white gowns, flower crowns) to something like Stork Club meets Latin disco (much of the show’s back half).

She paired those somewhat tangentially with her own costume changes, emerging first in winking, Dolly Parton-on-the-Potomac camp (Revolutionary War via 10,000 rhinestones) before morphing into various other looks: femme fatale trench coat with Veronica Lake hair; glitter-bombed Amadeus; a sort of couture Ice Capades in fluttery navy tulle. She drily apologized, too, for the show’s tardy start time, at nearly 11pm: “I have an injury. I have six children. I have a lot of wigs.”

It was her family, actually, who provided some of the night’s most genuinely moving moments — a rare glimpse of domestic life transported to the stage when her seven-year-old twins, Stella and Estere, joined her for a giddy snatch of group choreography, and teenage daughter Mercy slung her arm around her mother’s neck for an acapella “Express Yourself” singalong.

Most striking though was a full scrim late in the show that projected a black-and-white video of a dancer veiled in long curtains of dark hair, which lifted to reveal her firstborn, 22-year-old Lourdes. A trick of stagecraft allowed Madonna to sing her shimmering 1998 ballad “Frozen” both to her daughter and from inside her; the moment was mesmerizing, and exquisitely tender.

The show is hardly without flaws: her political messaging, though heartfelt, is often clumsily on the nose, and several set projections leaned toward the community-theater end of things. But in moments like these, when the construct of Madame X disappeared, what remained was something simpler and somehow much more satisfying than the equestrian or the cha-cha instructor or the saint (or even the mother, the magpie, the erstwhile standup comedian): Not just a pop star and perennial provocateur, but an artist in full.

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