Lady Gaga's in full-bloom in the first of two Mohegan Sun shows
We saw all sides of Lady Gaga's career Thursday night in a sold-out Mohegan Sun Arena, where she not only wowed the audience with a seven-act, two-hour-plus show that pulled out all the stops — laser lights, pyrotechnics, moving stage parts, floating runways — but displayed an impressive dedication to perform her best, no matter the size of the venue.
"I always say to people, you play a bar like it's an arena, and an arena like it's a bar," she said mid-way through the performance. In this case, it was as if she crammed the entirety of her 2017 Super Bowl halftime production inside the arena. As soon as she came onstage singing "Diamond Heart," the lighting alone felt bright enough for three stadiums.
Twirling LED backlights were triply amplified by angled mirrors placed behind them. Pulsing strobes flashed so bright I thought I would lose my vision. I was convinced, as I held my fingers up to my eyes to act as makeshift blinds, that if there was anyone with epilepsy in the crowd, they would surely die. I was also convinced these illumination antics had to be the consequence of a covert military testing of a new light-beam stun-ray of sorts, the likes of which seemed to be highly effective as I watched an elderly man lose his orientation and almost fall while walking down the steps to his seat.
Besides worrying about that — or whether I'd come down with a migraine — it was simply difficult to see what Lady Gaga was wearing throughout the alien abduction-esque light show (though, during the crowd-rousing "Poker Face," I could tell she was at least playing a glittering pink Les Paul guitar).
There's a simple explanation behind these blinding effects. According to my friend who works backstage at the casino, Gaga's tour was designed for stadiums and not, say, the 10,000 seat arena of Mohegan Sun. In fact, he told me that Gaga's crew arrived Monday to "figure out how to best fit the staging inside the smaller-than-average venue."
With that in mind, I have decided to forgive her — largely because the rest of her show was so excellent.
Gaga not only was able to sing powerfully and in perfect pitch throughout the entirety of the evening, she did it without the help of a backtrack — and all the while dancing to perfectly choreographed routines alongside 10 backup dancers.
Her resilience to give every bit of herself also impressed as she gyrated, twirled, stomped and strut with dramatic energy. I could only wonder, however, if she was feeling the chronic pain caused by fibromyalgia — a condition depicted, in her recently-released Netflix documentary "Five Foot Two" — that often would reduce her to a paralyzed ball of tears. But if she was in pain at the Sun, it wasn't in any way apparent.
On that note, anyone who's a fan of Gaga knows she has been undergoing a transition in her life toward emotional openess. That's particularly emphasized on "Joanne," her latest, and fourth album, which features a stripped-down take on pop and often displaying raw emotion — an aspect unheard of earlier in her career when she presented an emotionless, plastic-diva persona utilizing theatrical makeup, costumes and masks.
So, my biggest question Thursday was whether Gaga could combine these more emotionally open aspects with her signature flamboyance.
In short: yes. Gaga was at once, bombastic, racy and fun when she performed earlier hits such as "Love Game" and "Bad Romance" in glittering lacy leotards. Though not as dramatic as the costumes we associate with the outset of her career, the toned-down look was still effective. She timed her costume changes so that they occurred every few songs, separating the concert into seven distinct "acts." Throughout, she was open about her struggles and growth as a person. This was particularly resonant when she performed the title cut from "Joanne" on guitar with the spare accompaniment of two musicians from her outsized band.
The sentiments were echoed in latter acts, which thematically hinged on the ideas of love and acceptance. "All the pain is everything that made me who I am," she said while explaining the generational-grief she experienced while growing up in the wake of her aunt Joanne's death — something that has largely come to shape her life.
It was in this portion of the show that we saw Gaga at her best, as when she sat at a piano — seemingly constructed of neon blue and pink cellophane — to play a slowed-down version of "The Edge of Glory." Her vocals, combined with impressive piano skills, were powerful and on point, and it was interesting to think about how cool it would be if Gaga simply sat and sang at a piano for an entire show.
At the same time, dramatics and spectacle are still a big part of what Gaga thrives on — as well as her fans. And ultimately that's what she delivered, ending with "Million Reasons," a song that was both touching and unifying, tragic and hopeful — a metaphor for who she has become.
Lady Gaga performs at 7:30 p.m. Saturday in the Mohegan Sun Arena.
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