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POP MUSIC REVIEW : Madonna Bowls Over Arsenio's Show : Looking like a cross between Barbara Stanwyck and Bette Davis, she steams up the comic's Hollywood Bowl taping with 'Fever' and 'The Lady Is a Tramp.'

May 15, 1993|CHRIS WILLMAN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

While it might have seemed a stroke of genius for Arsenio Hall to host his 1,000th syndicated talk show at the Hollywood Bowl, the real savvy was in the choice of a climactic guest. After all, the waiting world has not been bestowed with a real Madonna Moment in about four months--which, in Ciccione years, is close to a decade.

Before a packed, paying house at Thursday night's charity-benefiting taping for TV (for a Friday airing), the poster girl for autoerotica finally re-emerged from her excruciating tease of a hibernation, with Hall as the great facilitator.

Verdict? Seventeen thousand woofers can't be wrong: The lady is a tramp.

And a vamp--a persona she hastened after here in the most classic sense. Madonna officially premiered two looks at Thursday's show, singing a pair of numbers in front of a small "big" swing band. Crooning a very traditional "Fever"--de-discoized from the dance arrangement on her current album--Madonna appeared in an ankle-length black dress, borrowing Barbara Stanwyck's blond curls (circa "Double Indemnity") but stealing Bette Davis' scary makeup for a most severe period look.

America's second-favorite fitness fanatic even went so far into her '40s persona-of-the-moment as to actually smoke a cigarette--which, naturally, she ultimately stamped out with her platform shoes while rolling her tongue around her lips, cementing the Peggy Lee-as-dominatrix hook.

What came next was weirder and sort of funnier: a duet of "The Lady Is a Tramp" with Anthony Kiedis of the Red Hot Chili Peppers, the dynamic duo dressed in matching skirts, stockings, leather vests, cat-ear caps and lipstick, jitterbugging wildly. Naturally, Madonna treated the freewheeling lyrics with some license--Rodgers & Hart are probably not eager pre- or posthumously to claim lines like "I like a pair of breasts that isn't a fake . . . Sharon Stone! "

Like her or not, Madonna's usual blast of irreverence came as a definite kick after the overextended proceedings that preceded it.

Hall was as ebullient as you'd expect, giving an inspirational pep talk about how his fans should follow his example, be persistent and not listen to their naysayers. "One critic said I wouldn't make it a week!" he crowed.

Perhaps in belated retaliation, Thursday's taping seemed to take a week.

Well, only 2 1/2 hours, actually. Divvied up, that meant a little less than one hour devoted to taping Arsenio and his guests, and about an hour and a half devoted to Arsenio's warm-up guy (!) plying the crowd with dubious comic improv while the crew labored away on seemingly inconsequential set changes. It didn't seem to have occurred to anyone that the masses might've liked to hear Hall's house band, the Posse, jam during the long breaks between short acts, or that Hall himself might've been a better choice to chat at great length with a Bowl-ful of attendees than the fellow who usually flirts with a small studio audience.

Still, the ticket prices were earmarked for charity (the Magic Johnson Foundation for AIDS Projects) and the weather was nice (though chilly enough that Sinbad had some good fun mocking attending sex-symbol Johnny Gill for coming shirtless).

Though no other performers had Madonna's ability to captivate a crowd, Naughty by Nature did inspire the expected sea of hand waving with the simple but irresistible "Hip-Hop Hooray" anthem. Sinbad provided casual yoks, and even Arsenio got some zingers in in his surprisingly brief monologue (re La Toya Jackson: "She's involved with this Psychic Network, she shoulda known he was gonna hit her!"). Duran Duran provided a preview of its Aug. 23 Bowl appearance, but not the best possible one, the song "Come Undone" being an awfully sluggish choice for a single number to play in front of that many folks.

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