Lady Gaga’s Monster Ball proves a different beast

Now passing through Los Angeles for the second time in almost a year, the Monster Ball is beginning to feel less like a concert tour and more like a traveling circus: Cities are being revisited, the production itself looks to be growing uncontrollably, tour dates are being added as long as there’s interest (which is to say stops are being added indefinitely).

Although the tour retains many elements of its first incarnation in late 2009 — Lady Gaga’s longtime partners-in-crime, the boys of Semi Precious Weapons, still open for her, and there’s precious little in the way of new material since Angelenos last saw her in December — the Monster Ball is undeniably a different beast.

That said, Gaga’s countless and impassioned devotees (her “Little Monsters,” as she likes to refer to her disciples) can rest assured that the tweaks are for the better, and make for a concert that, like its centerpiece herself, always seems unmistakably bigger and more outrageous than how you remember it.

Lady Starlight, another seasoned collaborator from Gaga’s early days in seedy New York City music clubs, opened Wednesday night’s show at the Staples Center with a wordless DJ set. Going on as early as she did, Starlight was spinning mostly for the benefit of the highest paying fans, those in the Little Monsters Club who were allowed first grabs at coveted ground floor spots along the stage and the catwalk that extended out from it.

Her first three song selections, “Welcome To The Jungle,” “Crazy Train” and “Eye Of The Tiger,” set the tone for a set that would prove to be heavy on classic rock throughout. She danced non-stop, availing herself of a silver medicine ball and old-school jump rope at one point and tomahawk-like juggling equipment at another. Despite her high energy, it quickly became clear why it was Gaga, and not Starlight, who was able to break out of the burlesque circuit into mainstream pop culture. Although the unmarketable grunge aesthetic appears to have been a passing phase for Gaga, it’s clear the aesthetic is deeply rooted in Starlight’s persona as a performer.

In the course of Semi Precious Weapons’ too-long opening set, frontman Justin Tranter made it clear that he fancies himself an innovator in the genre of shock rock. His gratuitous crudity and self-conscious affectations of vanity (his response to even decidedly generous amounts of applause: “More!”) were almost unendurable, but the talents of drummer Dan Crean and backing scream-vocalist Cole Whittle made the irritating preening of amateur provocateur Tranter just bearable.

When Gaga finally took the stage just after 9 p.m., there was less energy than might be expected. Embarrassingly for the two warm-up acts, the minute Gaga’s motionless silhouette — locked in a dramatic Grace Jones-like pose as the opening beats of “Dance In The Dark” filled the Staples Center — gradually began to appear on the video screen that shielded the stage served to electrify the gathered masses more than any of the opening performers could. Backlit and standing stock-still, Gaga is still better able to whip a crowd into a frenzy than any other performer currently on the touring circuit.

The most noticeable change to the tour’s nightly performances is the addition of a narrative to the performance. The story follows a handful of Gaga’s friends as they make their way to the Monster Ball, the biggest party on the planet and a place where the superstar says all are encouraged to be true to themselves. The preachy, after-school special message — a constant throughout all of her interviews and performances — is more than a little clichéd at this point, but definitely not irrelevant to her numerous fans in the LGBT community.

The friends encounter a number of obstacles on their trek down the Glitter Road — a broken down car was labored over to the relatively obscure tune of “Glitter And Grease,” for instance, and the nightmarish “Fame Monster,” an anglerfish-like creature with tentacles, was vanquished as the heroine sang “Paparazzi” — but they eventually reached The Monster Ball.

As could be expected, the loose plot allowed for myriad costume changes (she donned a new outfit or shed a crucial piece of clothing approximately every other song). Audiences got to see the sparking cone bra from Gaga’s photo shoot for TIME magazine for themselves, as well as a few other outfits that were familiar from appearances and award shows. She performed “So Happy I Could Die” as a fiber-optic animatronic version of Glinda the Good Witch, and the famed “Gagasphere” thankfully made a return in her encore performance of “Bad Romance.”

Despite the fact that Gaga’s recent performances at Staples Center were part of a tour that began nearly one year ago, significant updates to the production — to say nothing of the newly penned rock number “You And I” — certainly warranted Lady Gaga’s “second coming.”