If you’ve watched the Lady Gaga documentary “Five Foot Two” on Netflix, you’ll wonder how the performer manages to put on such a physically demanding show like the one she unleashed at Philips Arena on Tuesday night. Bedeviled by chronic pain following a stage accident in 2013 and a diagnosis of fibromyalgia, Gaga still beautifully pulled off more than two hours of choreography, multiple costume changes and cavorting across a series of innovative stages stretching across the arena. There, literally, wasn’t a bad seat in the house since Gaga seemingly managed to reach every corner of the 21,000 capacity venue.
Much has been written about Gaga’s abrupt change in artistic course following the critically drubbed “ArtPop” album in 2013. Her latest effort, “Joanne,” saw Gaga strip away the avant-garde wardrobe and over-the-top theatrics to focus on her foundation: her big voice and musical chops. “Joanne” – inspired by her namesake aunt who also suffered from chronic pain and died young – is full of pop and rock (there’s even some country twang) that left some casual fans scratching their heads. Nevertheless, Gaga’s loyal fanbase – known as the Little Monsters – embraced Gaga’s transformation and sent the album to number one. It also earned her pair of Grammy nominations on the morning she arrived in Atlanta.
The “Joanne World Tour” might be described as the best of both worlds for the Little Monsters. The big hits that cemented Gaga – “Just Dance,” “Paparazzi,” “Alejandro,” “LoveGame,” “Telephone” and “Bad Romance” – are all on the set list, couched between tunes from the new album and stripped down versions of fan favorites. The roll out of these songs was aided by the aforementioned stage design that allowed Gaga to travel across the arena, taking fans on the musical journey with her.
With two main stages set up on either end of Philips Arena, cleverly designed bridges descended from the ceiling to take Gaga and her troupe of agile dancers to two smaller round stages at strategic locations on the floor of the venue. When the bridges weren’t in use, they ascended, flattened out and became giant video monitors. Combined with the visual graphics, pyrotechnics, lasers, and light show, it made for a visually arresting evening.
While the dance numbers were thrilling (my friend Jacob Nguyen, who attended the show with me, is still talking about how great “Bad Romance” was), it was the quieter moments that seemed to resonate most. The piano ballad version of “Edge of Glory,” the tear-inducing title track of the new album and the country-rooted “Million Reasons” (which Gaga performed on acoustic guitar) were the highlights of the show. While cell phones can ruin a performance, when the audience turned on their flashlights for “Joanne,” it created a sea of shimmering stars that even made Gaga emotional.
A Lady Gaga concert is also an empowering experience, especially for women and the LGBTQ community. Gaga paused numerous times during the evening to spread the message of love, hope and acceptance that is in short supply these days. Gaga’s nonprofit organization Born this Way, which works to empower and inspire youth, had a photo booth and message wall set up in the arena lobby.
After the rousing “Bad Romance,” the Little Monsters traditionally throw stuffed animals and notes on the stage. Gaga picked up one of the notes, unfolded it and read it aloud. A young man named Toby was in tears as Gaga read his words about overcoming adversity before she jumped down off the stage into the audience to hug him. I think it’s pretty safe to say that Toby won’t ever forget his close encounter with Gaga. And neither will anyone else who was in Philips Arena.