Madonna at the United Center, June 2006

Daily Herald Music Critic

She was John Travolta, she was Jesus Christ. She was an equestrian dominatrix, she was a punk rock agitator. She was a dance troupe leader, she was a lone ballad singer.

She, of course, was just being Madonna. Her “Confessions” tour arrived at the United Center Wednesday, the first of four nights, and it was a reliable apex of all the roles this 47-year-old pop stylist has played since her earliest Boy Toy days. If her “Re-Invention” tour two years ago was about how many hits she has in her back catalog, this tour focused solely on how she became a pop icon and why she remains one after all these years.

The two-hour, 19-song show was not weighed with her strongest material, but that didn’t matter. What did was the rotation of themes Madonna kept spinning — controversy, domestic bliss, global compassion, all filtered through a pop trash recycler. This was a show meant to show how easily Madonna floats from naughty to nice through familiar images and that throbbing industrial beat.

The sound was from the 1980’s, but the songs weren’t. Old-school disco was the directive of the night thanks to the prevalence of songs from “Confessions On a Dance Floor” (Warner Bros.), her album from last year. These songs are light on melody and big on beat, so it took choreography to make them bigger than life. Like cats, her flank of dancers scattered up and down three runways, performing impressive gymnastics in the air and on — for a mash-up of “Disco Inferno” and “Music” — roller-skates.

Backing her was a four-man band and for some songs she was joined by a singer she called Isaac. His demeanor was stiff and Hebrew vocals robotic, which helped a ballad section — Madonna strumming a guitar to “Paradise (Not For Me)” and the pop ballad “Substitute for Love” — feel stalled.

She delivered with spectacle. After leaving the audience waiting an hour and 20 minutes, Madonna dropped — literally — from the rafters, stepping out of a lowered mirror ball wearing equestrian wear tweaked with S&M fetish. She and her dancers did the pony express on each another, which led to “Like a Virgin” performed on a rotating rodeo saddle fixed to a stripper pole.

Did I mention she was crucified? Although the context was childhood trauma — dancers enacted various forms of abuse before Madonna took up her mirrored cross— the symbolism was less shock than campy schlock. The symbolism is so overcooked that seeing Madonna sing “Live to Tell” while hung to dry only served to reference Monty Python’s “Life of Brian” — Always look on the bright side of life, anyone?

Ultimately, Madonna was the night’s greatest visual. Through frenetic dance choreography and sensual poses, she trumped the wildest dreams of any set designer. Even when she stood still, as a guitar-playing goth for “I Love New York” or twisting her arms with two male dancers for the gay pride anthem “Forbidden Love,” she proved magnetic.

Her audience had to constantly keep up with her roles. She was a victim, she was an agitator. And when she angrily yelled at the audience to get more energy — “See how hard it is? I’ve been doing it for two hours!” — she was both in one stroke.

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