The first words Madonna used to express herself on opening night of her four-show run at the Met Philadelphia on Saturday were written by James Baldwin.
“Art is here to prove that all safety is an illusion.” Percussive sounds were tapped out as the silhouette of a woman hunched over a typewriter was shown on a video screen. “Artists are here to disturb the peace.”
On her big, messy, maddening and sometimes spectacular “Madame X Tour,” Madonna casts herself as that provocateur, the brave woman who pokes her finger in society’s eye, forcing the world to look.
She’s not here to play greatest hits, though a handful did appear in the aggressively intimate 2½-hour show, staged in a theater tiny by her standards. She’s also scheduled to perform on North Broad Street on Sunday, Tuesday and Wednesday.
“Express Yourself” was sung a cappella by the two dozen or so musicians and dancers, plus three of the singer’s daughters. “Vogue” and the heart stopping “Frozen,” were showstoppers, the latter with clips showcasing another daughter, dancer Lourdes Leon.
Other oldies but goodies were included. In “Papa Don’t Preach,” the 61-year-old singer made a point of changing a key lyric to “I’m not keeping my baby,” and gave a speech about women’s rights being under attack.
The back catalog song that fit best was “La Isla Bonita,” the 1986 hit that was the singer’s first foray into Latin pop. It was part of a “Fado Club” segment at the heart of the Madame X show.
In 2017, Madonna moved to Lisbon to accommodate her son David’s passion for soccer.
That led her to fado, the mournful Portuguese music whose name translates as “destiny.”
The Madame X album blends fado melancholy and propulsive rhythm from Cabo Verde, the nation off the coast of northwest Africa, with familiar dance pop.
On stage, the influence is more pronounced, and often effective. The backup musicians include several fado players who entertained with Madonna covers before she took the stage.
(The show had a scheduled 10:30 p.m. start, and likely would have begun at 11, but was delayed an additional 25 minutes on Saturday due to technical difficulties.)
Midway through, 14 women percussionists of Cabo Verde’s Orquestra Batukadeiras came down the aisles, filling the room with joyous energy. Then the singer paired with Gaspar Varela, guitarist grandson of the late fado singer Celeste Rodrigues. Madonna handled herself admirably.
The set piece also included “Killers Who Are Partying,” a well-intentioned Madame X track in which the singer has the gall to present herself as a selfless heroine willing to shoulder the sufferings of oppressed people throughout the world.
“I will be gay, if the gay are burned / I’ll be Africa, if Africa is shut down,” she sang. “I’ll be Islam, if Islam is hated / I’ll be Israel, if Israel is incarcerated.” Madonna: She’s all things to all people. Rendered with musical subtlety — and some lyrics sung in Portuguese — the song was not as wince-inducing as on Madame X.
The impressively elaborate show is casually paced, giving the star time to riff like a stand-up comic.
She expressed confusion about the popularity of cheesesteaks (“What’s up with that?”) and said she was thrilled to be in “this beautiful opera house with M’s all over the place. It looks like they built it for me. They did, didn’t they?”
Madame X is not loaded with bangers. But “Medellin” picked up the pace, bringing Madonna and dancers into the crowd. And “Crave,” with an "X" patch covering her left eye, revved the room up for a finale.
That one-two punch began with an ecstatic “Like a Prayer.” It was what everyone had been waiting for. The show then closed with the “I Rise,” advocating for gun control and press freedom. The screen turned the colors of the rainbow flag, and Madonna and troupe exited up the aisle, fists raised.