Katy Perry, December 4, 2017: Shows I’ll Never Forget

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BMO Harris Bradley Center in Milwaukee, Wisconsin: It was Cirque du Soleil on LSD. Spectacle on the grandest of scales played out on an enormous, ever-changing stage. And the music wasn’t bad, either.

Katy Perry rolled through Milwaukee on a Monday night in December and brought with her one of the best theatrical experiences the city has seen in a while. I went because I like her hits, but I also knew this would be a full-on sensory blowout. And it was. With a wide thrust stage jutting deep into the audience, and a backing screen that rivaled the scoreboard at Miller Park, my distant balcony seat made little difference. She was playing to the entire room.

To that end, everything about the production was huge — from large, illuminated planets descending from the rafters to a pair of giant lips that swallowed her whole. A comically large basketball backboard, oversized roses, gigantic dice, and parade-sized animal marionettes all accentuated Katy Perry’s own huge talent as a performer.

The concert’s size and lavishness made me repeatedly ponder the logistics that went into this tour. I have heard they need 38 semis to haul the sets and props. I don’t doubt it. The multi-tiered stage alone was vast, with various rising platforms for Perry and her hard working ensemble’s constant entrances and exits. Eight acrobatic females and two male dancers all sang background and had more costume changes than the star herself. The six-piece instrumental backing band looked positively small in comparison to everything that was taking place around them. Even so, the sextet filled this large Milwaukee venue with a well-mixed sound that seemed to rely little (if at all) on backing tracks. I was also watching for pre-recorded vocal enhancement, but was pleased that I detected no such artifice.

It all appeared effortless, but of course it wasn’t. When a male dancer performed some remarkable gymnastic maneuvers on an 18-foot-high rose stem during the ballad “Tsunami,” I wondered if people realized the extraordinarily high level of expertise being employed. This applied to the entire production: Amazing staging challenges were executed without a hitch on every song, making the difficult look easy. Even the rare mistakes had class. Once, a dancer accidentally dropped the top of a serving tray during the choreographed piece for “Bon Appétit.” A very small error, but it was interesting to watch the woman retrieve this lid while remaining in-character, making one wonder for just a moment if this was an intentional part of the routine.

I marveled at how Perry, the dancers, and the stage crew could keep this flow unabated for nearly two hours. In fact, they didn’t. But when the pace slowed, it was at the singer’s behest. On three occasions Katy Perry purposefully broke her set’s momentum. At one point, she brought a young girl to the stage. This person was not a plant, as I initially assumed. Instead, the local fan was escorted onstage because Perry noticed the girl’s enthusiasm and attire. The 12-year-old was excited but poised as she answered her idol’s questions and gave the star a hug. Perry uses this nightly interaction to encourage her fans to engage with their parents and, specifically, not to ignore their text messages.

Later, returning to the theme of communicating with one’s parents, Katy Perry stopped the show to check-in with her own mother. A gigantic, old-school telephone receiver was lowered to the stage while Perry used a cell phone to place a call that her mother was obviously expecting. Armed with bad Wisconsin jokes about cheese, mother and daughter shared their nightly laugh. Katy chastised her mother for answering the phone while driving, and ended the conversation by promising that she would call again when the tour reached Detroit. Perry then alluded to her strong Christian background by telling the audience, “My mother prays for me every Sunday; she prays for me not to do the next song.” As the crowd’s anticipation grew louder, Perry laughed and continued, “But I have to do this song: It’s what put me on the map!” With that, a rollicking version of “I Kissed a Girl” filled the hall.

Katy Perry appears genuine in her concern for her young fans. She is very involved with the Boys & Girls Clubs of America. One of her new songs, “Chained to the Rhythm,” is meant to encourage her followers to become active in their communities. In many ways, this was a family friendly show. That is, if you ignored the enticingly hot dancers who were constantly striking suggestive poses. And perhaps if you didn’t speak English well enough to decipher Perry’s song lyrics or read the word “SEX” emblazoned in lights on the performer’s blouse during her “Hot N Cold” number. I loved all of it, but wondered what the parents of her youthful fan base thought of some of the more overtly sexual aspects of the performance.

Sexuality is a part of any Katy Perry concert and should be expected. One thing that was not expected by this audience was the evening’s late start. Many attendees were clearly not accustomed to “rock time” and were frustrated by the star’s delay, not appearing until shortly after 9 p.m. It did seem odd, since at one point Perry herself thanked the audience for attending the show, “On a school night!”

The concert was advertised as beginning at 7 p.m. A duo from Canada named Purity Ring began their opening set at 7:45. An engaging couple with an impressive light show, but they were not the reason people had come. A woman behind me voiced an overly optimistic view, thinking that the time listed on her ticket meant that Perry herself would hit the stage at 7 o’clock, with Purity Ring playing earlier. Her hopes were unrealistic, of course, but even so — with an opening act starting 45 minutes late, followed by a 40-minute break before the headliner emerged – dutiful adult chaperones became restless. Some young fans simply wore out.

The interim did seem long, but it included something I had never experienced at a concert. I long ago became grudgingly accustomed to strings of commercials being shown before the feature at movie theaters. But this was the first time I was ever subjected to ads before a live performance. The tie-in made sense: These were spots advertising Cover Girl make-up, for which Katy Perry is a spokeswoman. They were brief, well produced, and showed the star’s natural beauty. Actually, it was nice to see her face without the extreme costumes of the concert. But they were still commercials.

After about an hour into Katy Perry’s set, those who had expected an early night began their homeward trek. While the weary departed, Perry held one more interaction with the audience, and this last interlude was the audience’s favorite. Perry wanted “a dad” to join her on stage for a basketball free-throw competition before playing her recent hit, “Swish Swish.” She spotted a khaki-clad candidate far up in the stands. The surprised father was quickly escorted to the stage to shoot hoops with Perry. I’m sure this segment is not always as successful as it was on this night in Milwaukee, but the self-proclaimed “Brad the Dad” was comfortable in the unexpected limelight. And he won the contest, 3-2. Perry was clearly having fun with a guy who knew how to handle the impromptu situation. By placing these sort of quirky pieces in her show, Perry made certain that the concert never become too slick or impersonal.

As the concert came to an end, Perry made a reference to the length of her current tour. “When we go out on the road, we go OUT!” — indicating that Milwaukee was week 12 of a 48-week run. I found that remarkable — to do this exhaustive of a show for such a prolonged tour. But I checked her itinerary and it’s true: She is on the road in the U.S. through early February and then plays dates in the rest of the world until late August. Katy Perry’s official title for this outing is “Witness: The Tour.” It’s a clever use of her latest album title, Witness, but I agree with the sentiment: People should witness this tour. Call me; I’m ready to see it again.

Tom Wilmeth is the author of ‘Sound Bites: A Lifetime of Listening,’ which has earned raves from the likes of Gary Burton and Hal Holbrook. It’s available now from Muleshoe Press via Amazon.

Tom Wilmeth

Tom Wilmeth

Tom Wilmeth, an English faculty member at Concordia University-Wisconsin since 1991, has given presentations and published widely on the topics of literature and music. Author of 'Sound Bites: A Lifetime of Listening,' he earned a Ph.D. at Texas A&M in College Station. Contact Something Else! at reviews@somethingelsereviews.com.
Tom Wilmeth
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