Reviewed by Colin Jacobson
In honor of her current “Drowned World” tour - her first concert trek since 1993 - I figured it was time to formally cover another Madonna show, one that took place in 1987. I’d already reviewed the only additional Madonna live footage found on DVD. 1991’s Truth or Dare is mainly a behind the scenes documentary, but it includes some performances from her 1990 “Blonde Ambition” tour, while 1994’s The Girlie Show Live Down Under provides a full example of her 1993 concert.
From 1988, Ciao Italia - Live From Italy offers another complete show, this one from her 1987 “Who’s That Girl” outing. This was only Madonna’s second trek, as it followed her initial appearances in 1985 via the “Virgin” tour, and it was her first actual world tour; the “Virgin” shows took place only in the US. Though she was already a big star in mid-1985, by 1987 she’d solidified her hold on the public, and the scale of the “Girl” show demonstrated that point. In 1985, she played at arenas and amphitheaters, but by 1987, Madonna graduated to stadiums.
Actually, that commencement may have been a little premature. While shows sold well, Madonna lacked the power to fill all of the seats at all of the shows, and some concerts - such as the Washington DC performance I attended - featured quite a few empty stools. This was Madonna’s first and last stadium-exclusive tour; as documented during the Girlie Show DVD, she would indeed continue to play some huge venues overseas - at least until the “Drowned World” tour, which offers only indoor shows - but she hasn’t performed at a US stadium since 1987.
1987 also marked the last appearance of the semi-innocent Madonna. While this may sound like an odd statement considering the fact that her material and persona always displayed a rather sexual tone, if you compare Italia with any of her later performances, you’ll see a distinct difference in her attitudes. In her earlier shows, Madonna came across more as a kid who wants to put on a big show and make everybody happy. The Madonna of 1990 and later seems much more self-assured and in touch with herself, and the concerts benefit from this. I won’t say that she lacked confidence during the “Virgin” and “Girl” tours, but the Madonna of “Ambition”, “Girlie” and “Drowned” looks like a very different person; more-modern Madonna shows the strength, self-control and composure the earlier version wishes she could display.
This doesn’t mean that Italia doesn’t offer an entertaining performance; for what it is, the show actually seems quite lively and fun. However, it clearly doesn’t compare with later tours, and it suffers a bit from excessive ambition. “Virgin” was a fairly low-key affair in regard to staging. It offered a simple set and only a couple of costume changes. By contrast, “Girl” blew up the stage to stadium proportions, and Madonna tried desperately to take advantage of that space. She’s do so much more effectively with the stunning sets of “Ambition” and “Girlie”, but during “Girl”, the stage looked more like a busy place with little meaning.
One constant for all Madonna tours regarded her on-stage accompaniment. From the very start, she added male dancers, and “Girl” expanded this roster past the two minor players seen during “Virgin”. The number only increased by one, but the performers were more notable, at least at the time. “Girl” featured then-famous breakdancer Shabba-Doo, and it also included Angel Ferreira, the boy who appeared in Madonna’s “Open Your Heart” video. Though their work seems terribly dated by modern standards, those two plus Chris Finch added a dimensionality lacking from the generic “Virgin” dancers, though I honestly could have lived without them as part of the show.
All told, “Girl” was a much slicker performance. “Virgin” functioned as a fairly standard rock show that offered a few theatrical moments, but “Girl” worked from a grand scale throughout its run. Happily, it also marked the first collaboration between Madonna and backup singers Donna DeLory and Niki Haris; those two didn’t appear during the “Virgin” tour, but they’ve been a mainstay of every tour since then, and they add immeasurably to the experience. Donna and Niki stayed in the background for much of “Girl” - indeed, they worked with a third singer, Debra Parsons, who wouldn’t show up during subsequent shows - but for “Ambition” and the concerts since that time, they’ve become an active and effective component of Madonna’s troupe. They contribute a personal interaction with Madonna that her revolving roster of dancers can’t match. I’d still see Madonna without Niki and Donna, but the experience wouldn’t be the same.
Perhaps the biggest problem with “Girl” stems from the fairly generic nature of the performance. As much as Madonna tried to spice up the show with theatrics, it all seems the same for the most part. I’ve watched the show at least 20 times over the last 14 years, but I have great trouble conjuring any particularly memorable images from it. I liked the gloomy transition between “True Blue” and “Papa Don’t Preach”, and the latter remains the show’s high point, but very few indelible impressions otherwise stemmed from the performance. For all of its dazzle, the visual look stayed pretty similar throughout, and it did little to make many of the tunes stand out from the rest.
To be certain, that wouldn’t be a problem during later shows; name any of those songs and immediately I can recollect the performance. Still, even though “Girl” could be a somewhat lackluster show at times, it still remained consistently entertaining. The should didn’t deliver the grit and personality of later Madonna, but it seemed rather charming to watch her in her younger days when she still had to work hard to satisfy a crowd. Personally, I prefer attitude-laden Madonna to this more chipper and eager-to-please version; the wicked tone suits her better. Nonetheless, it was fun to see the earlier edition, and that one still put on an entertaining and lively show.
Possibly the biggest problem with Italia regarded the sloppy manner in which the program was assembled. I can’t recall if Italia appeared as a TV special that aired live or if it was taped and edited specifically for future broadcast screenings, but it certainly looked like something that was created on the fly. Sloppy camerawork and editing abound, as those two factors don’t flow together terribly well. It felt as though they tried their best to get appropriate material at the time but that they failed to massage it after the fact.
As such, Ciao Italia will always be a reasonably entertaining artifact of Madonna’s earlier days, but it remains too messy a program to be a classic. The show itself doesn’t compare with her three subsequent tours, though it offers some fun on its own. Essentially this is a decent remnant of a less mature Madonna, and it probably will be of most value to her biggest fans or those who primarily feel interested in her older material.
Here’s a full song listing for Ciao Italia. As an added note, I thought it’d be fun to detail the number of tours on which Madonna performed the tunes. The range is between one - which would denote a tune heard only during the “Who’s That Girl” trek - and five, which would include the current “Drowned World” show. I’ll also present the specific years in which the songs appeared live:
1) “Open Your Heart” (2 - 1987, 1990)
2) “Lucky Star” (2 - 1985, 1987)
3) “True Blue” (1 - 1987)
4) “Papa Don’t Preach” (2 - 1987, 1990)
5) “White Heat” (1 - 1987)
6) “Causing A Commotion” (2 - 1987, 1990)
7) “The Look Of Love” (1 - 1987)
8) “Dress You Up” (2 - 1985, 1987)
9) “Material Girl” (3 - 1985, 1987, 1990)
10) “Like A Virgin” (4 - 1985, 1987, 1990, 1993)
11) “Where’s the Party” (2 - 1987, 1990)
12) “Live to Tell” (2 - 1987, 1990)
13) “Into the Groove” (3 - 1985, 1987, 1990)
14) “La Isla Bonita” (3 - 1987, 1993, 2001)
15) “Who’s That Girl” (1 - 1987)
16) “Holiday” (5 - 1985, 1987, 1990, 1993, 2001)
Note that “Dress You Up”, “Material Girl” and “Like A Virgin” were not performed in complete renditions. The three comprised a medley for this tour.