Lady Gaga’s timing is impeccable.
    That’s not just because she can sing and dance expressively at the same time – see that, Britney Spears, it is possible! – though that is pretty impressive.
    However, even that pales in comparison to her big-picture timing, which she has used, along with some luck, to turn her “Monster Ball” Tour into the grandest headliner entrance to superstardom seen in decades.
    “When they ask me why I spent all my money on my show, I tell them it’s because I think my fans are sexy,” Gaga told the crowd last night at the first of her four sold-out shows at Radio City Music Hall. Earlier, she explained that the tour was her attempt to “have a place to go – a place where all the real freaks are outside and we lock the doors.”
    All that may be true, but her decision to move forward with an arena-worthy spectacle on a much-smaller stage – after her arena tour with Kanye West was cancelled due to his erratic behavior last fall – was a big gamble. But it certainly paid off.
    It’s like watching the first 20 years of Madonna’s career telescoped into one, like she studied The Material Girl and worked to optimize her climb to the top. With only two albums – one and a half really, considering “The Fame Monster” is essentially an EP – to her name, Gaga speeds through the stages from earnest upstart to wily veteran through the course of the 100-minute show.
    Her opening salvo – the future hit, the “Vogue”-ish “Dance in the Dark,” followed by her smashes “Just Dance,” performed in and above a glowing cube while grasping a keytar, and “LoveGame” – is a dizzying collection of images and choreography made even more effective by a set design that puts a frame around all the festivities. Her flashiness has art direction and broader symbolism, as do the other trappings of her act, right down to calling her fans her “little monsters” and giving them a hand sign so they can recognize each other. It’s all pretty brilliant.
    Even when the show drags a bit during the lesser tracks from her debut “The Fame” – including the title track and the dance-pop throwaways “Beautiful, Dirty, Rich” and “Boys Boys Boys” – Gaga works hard to sell it, whether that means stripping down to a two-piece red bikini or bringing out her band for one of their rare appearances.
    Those moments make the combination of great songs and great images in “Poker Face” and “Paparazzi,” where she arrives onstage as a marionette controlled by her dancers, strung up by her hair – that much more effective, all leading up to her giant gyroscope entrance for “Eh Eh” and the stomping good time “Bad Romance.”
    Gaga is even crafty enough to choose her openers carefully, reflecting how much she has accomplished. Brooklyn’s Semi Precious Weapons has her ability to shock, though not the songs to back it up, while singer Jason DeRulo shows how catchy dance songs aren’t nearly enough to keep things interesting.
    Gaga could easily have been just another Jason DeRulo, just another singer in a sea of disposable hits, but she and her team – The Haus of Gaga – are too crafty for that. Is it any accident that she’s commanding pop culture interest in January, livening up the post-holiday, pre-awards season blahs? Of course not. Lady Gaga is too smart to leave such things to chance. 

SETLIST: Dance in the Dark / Just Dance / LoveGame / Alejandro / Monster / Teeth / Speechless / Poker Face (piano) / The Fame / Money Honey / Beautiful, Dirty Rich / Boys Boys Boys / Poker Face / Paparazzi // ENCORE: Eh Eh (Nothing Else I Can Say) / Bad Romance

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PHOTO: Lady Gaga at the American Music Awards by Getty Images

From today's Newsday: Lady Gaga at Radio City Music Hall