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Live review: Lady Gaga at Nokia Theatre L.A. Live

December 22, 2009 | 11:31 am

Gaga The chameleonic chanteuse's Monster Ball tour is a dazzling showcase for the singer-dancer-writer-clotheshorse, but also a tantalizing tease of things to come.

"A year ago this month I was opening for Natasha Bedingfield and the New Kids on the Block -- at this theater," said Lady Gaga on Monday night during the first of her three sold-out performances at Nokia Theatre L.A. Live. She was posing as usual, her body elegantly contorted to show off a dazzlingly weird outfit. But she was also smiling, cracking a warm and surprisingly unaffected grin.

Gaga has arrived. She knows it, even when she sprawls on the floor in her cruelly shiny black bustier and declares herself a gothic Tinkerbell, in danger of dying unless her fans scream. They all know it too; they arrived Monday in homemade versions of those signature haute-art costumes and danced and screamed throughout the nearly two-hour show with the fervor of those whose team is headed for a championship.

Their loyalty and sense of community is a major theme of the Monster Ball tour, which celebrates the supernatural power of the pop headliner while mulling over its validity.

This is Lady Gaga, though, so the cultural theory is dressed up in red vinyl and crushed-rhinestone glitter, set to the beat of hits such as "LoveGame" and "Bad Romance," and fleshed out by dancers in white bodysuits or black feathers and by the singer-dancer-writer-clotheshorse herself.

She began the evening alone onstage, dressed in a lightbulb-festooned cat suit behind a graph-paper screen that made her look huge and vaguely robotic. As the show progressed, she sported crow feathers, a disco-ball hump and a red leather bikini, each costume meant to both fulfill and subvert various pop clichés.

The Monster Ball is an invigoratingly ambitious show, executed with vigor by its star and her expressive dancers. It offers a few musical wows, especially when Gaga sits (or stands or crouches in yogic contortions) at the piano. But like the artist herself, it's a whole package. There are provocative films -- in one, Lady Gaga wears a series of face-covering "gimp masks," while another has the brunet Gaga vomiting a sky-blue stream onto her blond alter ego -- and enough props, costumes and lights to make this a rare multimedia experience for such a relatively small venue.

Since the tour's first American date in Boston several weeks ago, when I first saw it, Gaga and her collaborators have made some small but significant changes, perfecting the pacing and execution of many numbers. She's also worked on her patter, luxuriating in it in ways that made the show feel intimate despite all the bells and whistles, and adding new signature lines about music being free, her fans being sexy and this show being one big act of carnal love.

The Rapunzel-like wig she wore in "Paparazzi" has been replaced by a smaller one that visually links her live performance to the bondage imagery in the film that precedes it. Subtle details seemed to have been fleshed out, like certain poses that evoked Catholic saints or macho hard-rockers. It's also possible, though, that I missed these details upon first seeing the show. It's so packed with ideas and images that some are bound to slip by without making a full impact.

Gaga is still working on linking her visions to an underlying narrative. She speaks her messages loud and clear, but the singer and her troupe's striking choreography didn't always communicate as clearly. The Nokia's big screens revealed a little stubble on her underarms and her occasional reliance, while executing difficult moves, on what seemed like a backing track. She's still balancing the confrontational rocker inside with the fabulous pop star.

At 23, Gaga is just beginning the life's work she takes so seriously. "This is our first date," she said to the crowd, "so I may not go all the way." Then she added an off-color declaration of freedom that shows one way this young modernizer of classic pop themes "works blue."

But that's just one color Gaga has in her wardrobe. We have years to see her mix and match, cut and shred and bedazzle more.

--Ann Powers

Photo: Pop artist Lady Gaga performs in Boston on Dec. 2, the night she received five Grammy nominations. Credit: Carolyn Cole / Los Angeles Times