TORONTO — There is only one way for Madonna to begin a show — on a throne, of course.
And that’s exactly where we find her at the start of her Sticky & Sweet show at the Air Canada Centre, as a giant “box” made of video screens lifts and separates to reveal the Michigan-born pop culture queen dressed in black and seated amidst a pageant of candy-coated swirls and images. She rises, tosses off her black coat and begins singing “Candy Shop” amidst a sea of tuxedoed and top-hatted dancers.
At this juncture of her career Madonna doesn’t do anything small — nor, perhaps, should she with more than 200 million albums sold worldwide and, at 50, a newly enshrined status in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. She describes the Sticky & Sweet Tour, which marks Madonna’s first performing visit to her home town since 2001, as a “rock-driven dancetastic journey,” which is an apt summation of the energetic and inventive carnival that runs through 23 full-production songand-dance numbers with elaborate staging and video dressing.
“She’s always looking to do new and great, creative things,” explains the show’s creative director, Jamie King, who’s been working with Madonna for a dozen years. The thematic center of this production, he says, was Madonna’s new album, “Hard Candy,” a return to the crafted, danceable pop after some excursions into the electronic music realm.
“‘Hard Candy’ is a really fun, exciting record,” King says. “We really wanted to play a lot of songs off the record and have the show be really fun — that was the motivation from the get-go, and not only have fun for Madonna on stage but to show everyone what it looks like to have that much fun and for the audience to enjoy it with her, together.
“So that was the motivation there, to have a really fun show.”
After taking in Sticky & Sweet’s array of highoctane ensemble dance pieces and visual tricks, “fun” seems like an understatement. The show is divided into four segments — Pimp, Old School, Gypsy and Rave — each with distinctive looks and staging schemes ranging from a white roadster that rolls Madonna and her dancers out from the main stage during “Beat Goes On” to shimmering beaded curtains that encase her as she sings “Devil Wouldn’t Recognize You” atop a grand piano.
During “She’s Not Me” four of the female dancers dress as some of Madonna’s past personas, and she mainpulates them like mannequins, switching articles of clothing from one to the other. “Into the Groove” features some strenuous jump-rope choreography, and during the “video interlude” a couple of the male dancers stage a boxing match, complete with a ring, while a remix version of “Die Another Day" — Madonna’s theme for the 2002 James Bond film — pipes over the speakers. “Guests” such as Kanye West, Pharrell Williams, Britney Spears, Timbaland and Justin Timberlake appear on video screens for their respective songs (although Spears and Timberlake recently recreated their parts in person at the Dodger Stadium show in Los Angeles).
For all its visual confections, Sticky & Sweet isn’t short on musical highlights, either, including a thumping, house-style version of “Music” and a punk rock treatment of “Borderline” that’s one of several songs on which Madonna plays guitar. Before “Hung Up” she takes audience requests, delivering a snippet of “Express Yourself” or “Holiday” before going into the song.
And for the Gypsy segment of the show the ensemble is joined by the Kolpakov Trio from Romania for ethnic-infused treatments of “Spanish Lesson,” “Miles Away” and “La Isla Bonita,” while her rendition of “You Must Love Me” from the film “Evita” is a bona fide showstopper.
What Madonna fans may find most surprising is that Sticky & Sweet is not as gratuitously provocative, particularly sexually, as her other tours — no nude dancers or simulated orgasms or S&M imagery. “I don’t think she’s feeling overtly sexual at the moment,” acknowledges King, who started working on the show four months before the tour’s Aug. 23 start in Cardiff, Wales, and is hoping one of the shows will be filmed for a DVD. “Sexuality wasn’t big on our list of things to really touch on.”
In its place, Madonna plays a political card during Sticky & Sweet. She made a few caustic comments about Republican vice-presidential candidate Sarah Palin at some of the shows, but the big moment is the “Get Stupid” video interlude, a montage of images that manages to equate President George Bush and Sen. John McCain with Adolf Hitler and other historical villains and also pays tribute to humanitarians and activists such as Mahatma Ghandi, Bishop Desmond Tutu, Nelson Mandela, Live Aid/Live 8 founder Bob Geldof, filmmaker Michael Moore and former U.S. vice-president Al Gore and ends with President-elect Barack Obama — before “4 Minutes” ushers the show into the celebratory Rave segment which also includes “Like a Prayer,” “Ray of Light,” “Hung Up” and “Give It 2 Me.”
At the end Madonna works her way back into the “box” in which she came from, while “Holiday” plays on the P.A. and the video screens declare Game Over.
Fortunately, the Sticky & Sweet is a winning proposition for both Madonna and her fans.
Since her breakthrough in 1984, Madonna has come back home to play five times. Those previous visits include:
The Virgin Tour, May 25-25, 1985, Cobo Arena: A stripped-down outing by today’s standards, with just two dancers and minimal scenery. Father Silvio “Tony” Ciccone comes out during the encores to drag Madonna off stage for being a “bad girl.”
Who’s That Girl World Tour, Aug. 7, 1987, Pontiac Silverdome: With thenhusband Sean Penn, freshly out of jail, in the house, Madonna talks about riding her bicycle on the stadium site before the Silverdome was built. “Like a Virgin” featured a chorus from the Four Tops hit “I Can’t Help Myself (Sugar Pie Honey Bunch).”
Blond Ambition Tour, May 31-June 1, 1990, The Palace of Auburn Hills: The two-night visit by Madonna and her Jean-Paul Gaultier-designed cone-shaped bra features a segment from the “Dick Tracy” film, while a backstage visit by her father, stepmother and other family members was captured for the “Truth or Dare” tour documentary.
The Girlie Show, Oct. 21, 1993, The Palace of Auburn Hills: Madonna hit home for one of just five North American stops on her fourth tour, paying a little Motown homage with a bit of the Miracles’ “Just My Imagination (Running Away with Me)” during “Rain.”
Drowned World Tour, Aug. 25-26, 2001, The Palace of Auburn Hills: Some 33,725 fans turned out for these two shows, the second of which was broadcast live on HBO.
Madonna performs at 7:30 p.m. Tuesday (Nov. 18) at Ford Field, Brush Street and Madison Avenue, downtown Detroit. Tickets are $50-350. Call (313) 262-2000 or visit www. livenation.com.
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