The idea that Lady Gaga cribs from the Madonna songbook is a crock.
At Thursday night's show at Verizon Center, she also cribbed from Elton John, Queen, Guns n' Roses, Klaus Nomi, even Tim Burton, all for a show that was upbeat, hysterical at times, and as shamelessly frivolous as the best pop spectacles should be.
The show opened at 9:25 p.m. with a lopsided silhouette performing "Dance in the Dark" from behind a white scrim, much like Madonna opened "Express Yourself" at the 1989 MTV awards.
Was it Gaga back there, or some kind of animatronic? With Gaga, it's always a combination of both. The figure tried different poses in place, earning ecstatic cheers from the mostly filled-out arena for each new one.
When the scrim finally went up, Gaga was revealed in a big purple onesie and exaggerated Klaus Nomi-esque (or, if you want, Margiela-esque) power shoulder pads. Also on stage: a small flotilla of dancers in ripped leggings and leather vests, and a beat-up green car, the second automobile to make a stage guest appearance in the last year after Carrie Underwood's flying pickup truck.
Some kind of memo must have circulated at Live Nation last year. Only Underwood's car didn't also double as a piano, like Gaga's did, one she put to use during a mainly subdued "Glitter and Grease."
"Just Dance" revved things up. To offset Gaga's spirited if kicky, aimless dancing style, she was backed by some 20 dancers, all on stage for the first time. Where she poses more than she gyrates, they're supposed to fill in the gaps with suggestive calisthenics.
But dancing's never been Gaga's strong suit; Robyn put on a more coordinated performance on that front at Rams Head not long ago. Her assets are her singing voice, and the spectacle she inspires in even the oldest fans. One needn't look further than the crowd here, which was a cross-section of young and old, gay and female, many decked out in their best duds and pink wigs from Party City. There were even septuagenarians in silver jackets and face masks, a Ga-Ga sisterhood, if you will.
There's also her sense of humor. Though she didn't crack a smile all night, Gaga's best moments are inspired by kitsch and a Dada sensibility that appreciates double entendres, irony and the absurd. Witness her piano car, "bluffin' with my muffin,' an engorged claw for a glove, or her off-the-cuff banter with the crowd.
"I don't if you've heard D.C.," she told the crowd, "but I've got a tremendous [***]," a reference to probably self-created rumors a few years ago that she was intersex.
For "LoveGame," Gaga altered the set only slightly, replacing the vintage car for a subway headed towards 42nd street and "Glitter Way." The show's story line, something out of "Rocky Horror Picture Show," had Gaga and her gaggle on their way to the Monster Ball.
Her costume here - a play on a Richard Prince nurse - was quickly shuffled out for "Telephone," which ushered us into the leather portion of the evening, and her, perhaps, best moment of choreography. She showed off her potent singing voice on new ballad "You and I," pure vintage Elton, that she played on a burning piano.
She dedicated it, in so many words to LGBTQ activists, a poignant moment that came days after President Obama asked the Justice Department to stop defending the Defense of Marriage Act. Surprisingly, she didn't make note of it - maybe she's saving that speech it for her second single.
Over two hours, she played a set-list that was a virtual carbon copy of the one from September, and featured just a couple of new songs off the new album. The rest of her set list showed off some of her less known songs - "Teeth;" "So Happy I Could Die," as good a pop ballad as Gwen Stefani's "Cool," here sung in an angel costume with moving wings and halo.
Unlike Madonna, who endlessly remixes her songs for concerts, none of Gaga's songs showed much variation from their album or radio counterparts.
She finished the night with three of her best known singles - "Poker Face," "Paparazzi" and a soaring (and shiny) "Bad Romance."
For the encore, she starting singing "Born this Way" acappela with her three back-up singers, and then switched to the version that's ubiquitous on top 40 radio now. She calls it an anthem for the disaffected, though judging by the merchandise outside, they must only be the deep-pocketed kind. A "Born this Way" hoodie went for $75 while a simple, sequin-less black tee cost $50.
The implied message? Splurge, you were born to pay.
Lady Gaga set list:
Dance in the Dark Glitter and Grease Just Dance Beautiful, Dirty, Rich The Fame LoveGame Boys Boys Boys Money Honey Telephone Speechless You and I (New song) So Happy I Could Die Monster Teeth Alejandro Poker Face Paparazzi Bad Romance
Encore: Born This Way
Photo: Lady Gaga performing in September at the Verizon Center (Gene Sweeney Jr./Baltimore Sun)