Madonna’s Tears of a Clown

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It sounded like a guaranteed train-wreck. As much as I love Madonna, her ill-conceived and poorly-executed stand-up bit during an appearance on a Jimmy Fallon show for her Rebel Heart promotional tour was proof that her greatest strengths are her musical performances. (Witness the insanely good ‘Bitch I’m Madonna’ dance-fest of that same show.) This evening – a gift to her Australian fans – promised to be an intimate and raw affair of music, stories and comedy, but I didn’t have much faith in how it would play.

Making a whimsical entrance on a tricycle, Madonna makes an effectively glamorous clown. Make-up is flawlessly spot-on, costume is sexy but innocent, and the flaming-pink wig and off-set top hat are a new take on some Madonna stand-by accessories. She’s done the sexy circus theme before (‘The Girlie Show’) and it fits her well. Still, I had my doubts.

It begins in somewhat-shaky but moving fashion as Madonna tackles the Stephen Sondheim classic ‘Send in the Clowns.’ To my knowledge, it’s the first time she’s sung Sondheim since her stunning ‘Sooner or Later’ performance from 1991′s Oscar telecast.

It’s always a thrill when Madonna performs my favorite song she’s ever written, so the appearance of ‘Drowned World/Substitute for Love‘ from her magnificent (and thus far best) album ‘Ray of Light‘ was a welcome beginning to her string of songs this evening.

The unfairly-maligned ‘American Life’ album got a welcome revisit, with emotional renderings of ‘X-Static Process‘, ‘Intervention‘ and the first-ever live performance of ‘Easy Ride.’ Though I’ll never be a big fan of ‘I’m So Stupid’ it fit in well with the raw, sometimes-self-flagellating nature of the night.

Some of the intervening “comedic” bits fall as flat as expected (that dumb donkey joke) but they are less harsh and more endearing than previous comic efforts. She also pokes fun at herself, not something she does often, but one of her unheralded strong-points when it happens. Sipping from a Cosmopolitan, she was more relaxed in a free-form style that usually leaves her more rigid. How, at this late stage of the game, she manages to reinvent and surprise after what we’ve already seen is a real revelation.

The mostly acoustic style of the songs neatly aligned with the intimate feel of this loosely-plotted show, and sets Madonna up for an even longer run should she choose to maintain her unprecedented sway. She expounds upon the creation of one of the most emotionally-wrenching songs she’s ever written – ‘Mer Girl’ – before giving it a stark reading – a haunting highpoint, a raw wound, a glimpse behind the curtain. This clown had many sides, this clown had depth, and this clown had some serious feeling.

By the time a gentle, easy-going version of ‘Borderline’ comes along, the music is finally, and reassuringly, revealed as her one true salvation, as the single aspect that has buoyed her career and changed the entire landscape of pop culture – for better, for worse, and forever. Her penultimate song for this event was the too-rarely-performed ‘Take A Bow’ – the perfect ending both thematically and lyrically; all the world does indeed love this clown.

I expected the whole thing to be a dud, an embarrassing mis-step at the end of her otherwise-amazing ‘Rebel Heart’ Tour, but I was proven wrong. That’s the majesty of Madonna at work, even when the unlikeliest naysayers are ready to wag our naughty fingers at her. Touché, Madame, and well-played.

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