Lady Gaga flipped a switch halfway through her first of two nights at Fenway Park on Friday — and it had nothing to do with the hydraulic lifts and tilting platforms or costume changes during arty videos between six “acts” of her two-hour show.
Gaga spent her first three acts flaunting stadium-pop standards of eye-popping outfits, dancers and choreography that have propelled many a female star from Madonna to Beyonce. Yet the well-executed routines through songs like “Poker Face” and “Perfect Illusion” seemed largely distant and unremarkable, marred by bombastic dance music in a muddy sound mix. At least cowboy-electro tune “John Wayne” injected life amid pyro puffs, “Alejandro” added playful sensuality (Gaga in fishnet and sheer fabric that revealed more tattoos) and “Telephone” put more lively bounce behind the superstar’s squats and stomps with her dance troupe. To her credit nonetheless, Gaga sang live even while dancing, utilizing frozen pauses at the end of each number to catch her breath as well as lend dramatic effect.
The most substantial early takeaway might have been Gaga acknowledging the honor and shame of being just the first female act to headline Fenway, giving women a rallying call to “be strong without permission, without the bullshit.”
Then, after she and her dancers marched in flower-power outfits to a satellite stage, the show turned the corner in miraculous fashion when the singer sat at a piano and laid bare both her down-to-earth talent and her heart. After talking about her close friend and creative assistant Sonja Dunham, who died of cancer in May, Gaga delivered a tour-de-force solo rendition of “The Edge of Glory,” leaving herself and fans teary-eyed as she reached high notes both vocal and emotional, singing “I’m on the edge with you.” It was a moment as viscerally moving as one could find in a stadium, which she suddenly treated like it was a living room.
“When you don’t feel like a star, you have to be to be a star for them,” Gaga said about friends, then joined her dancers in a cathartic romp through the inclusivity anthem “Born This Way” that took their renewed spirit to the main stage. From that point, even the flashy, white-themed staging of “Bad Romance” (with Gaga donning a feathered eye mask) seemed infused with a touch more humanity.
Gaga wasn’t done sharing either, telling the crowd how “Joanne” (the title track from her new album — and her middle name) was inspired by an aunt she never met who died of lupus as well as depression that Gaga shared with members of her family, expressing hope that fans would “know I was just like them.”
After returning to solo piano to sing “Million Reasons” to a sea of love-sharing cellphone lights, Gaga returned to center stage and left the final spotlight to her pink cowboy hat (as seen on the Joanne album cover), left atop the microphone stand. “Sometimes,” Gaga said, “it’s important to try on somebody else’s hat to understand.” And the star born Stefani Joanne Angelina Germanota’s last stroke of performance art came distilled in the form of simple, understated sincerity.