It's easy to admire Madonna and not necessarily easy to like her.

Respect her as an inspirational visionary, a hard-driven original, a tough-as-nails survivor, a single mother (of four) and a singular artist. Dislike her because she's a demanding, narcissistic, self-aware, self-absorbed, perfectionist diva. There's good reason that she titled a song "Unapologetic Bitch" on her latest album.

It was a lot easier to like Madonna on Thursday night at Xcel Energy Center than it was in 2012 there. Her MDNA Tour was disturbingly dark and violent. This year's Rebel Heart Tour found a kinder, gentler and happier Madonna.

The takeaway from her 130-minute show was that she was more playful than provocative, with more heart than hedonism and more smiles than scowls. At first, though, it didn't quite seem that way. The 57-year-old godmother of pop seemed short on energy, hoarse of voice and wanting more from her 13,000 fans.

"Did the cat get your tongue, St. Paul?" she asked a half-hour into the show. "Or have you had too many beers? Or not enough beers?"

Ah, Madonna still knows how to push buttons. In other words, it was Madonna being Madonna.

Apparently the crowd didn't get riled up when she co-mingled religion and sex on "Holy Water" (which spilled into a bit of her 1990 classic "Vogue"), in which dancers dressed as nuns pole-danced with Madonna, and "Devil Pray," which urges to ditch drugs and find spirituality by, um, having an orgy on a Last Supper-like table.

Of course, Madonna didn't need religious settings to make her points. Set in a 1950s garage, the double entendre "Body Shop" was both auto and erotic. But, as she has proved throughout her 30-some-year career, Madonna can change faster than a chameleon. She seamlessly sat atop a pile of tires in the body shop and offered a doo-wop treatment of 1986's "True Blue," accompanied by ukuleles.

Like Bruce Springsteen and U2, Madonna doesn't want to be an oldies act in concert, so she offered nine tunes from her "Rebel Heart" album. Of course, she dressed them up, first with Asian costumes (think Samurai warriors), then Spanish outfits (matadors aplenty) and finally something with French flair (welcome to the cabaret, 1920s style).

Those outfits — or variations thereof — also worked for mixing in oldies re-imagined. "Dress You Up" became a Mexican street scene, mashed up in the middle seamlessly by the Latin-tinged electronica of "Lucky Star."

"It's hot under here," she said, removing her bolero hat after the dance-happy medley. "I've never worn so many clothes. Whose idea was it? Not yours."

There were 450 outfits for the 20 dancers, two backup singers, four musicians and the one and only Madonna. When she exited to change costumes, her dancers took over the stage with some of the most thrilling and imaginative filler in arena concert history — including prancing atop cross-shaped bendable poles.

Although Madonna gained energy throughout the evening, she explained that she woke up with a fever Thursday morning. And that prompted her to break into an a cappella version of the classic "Fever." Yes, Madonna can be in the moment and she can sing live (though she was lip syncing during dance numbers). She dedicated the Edith Piaf signature "La Vie En Rose" to Prince. And she crooned her 1987 hit "Who's That Girl?"

She'd spent most of the night trying to explain that. Actually, she's still evolving — and that's why we keep paying attention.

Twitter: @JonBream • 612-673-1719