Her ponytail extends beyond her waist. Her boots rise up to mid-thigh. And her voice soared to the rafters of Xcel Energy Center in St. Paul on Thursday night.
What a magnificent voice Ariana Grande has. She’s got the breathy warmth of Adele, the churchy melismas of Aretha, the thrilling highs of Mariah. Her voice will go on far beyond Celine’s.
At 23, Grande is a vocal knockout. However, on her second arena headline tour, she manifested the same problem she did in her 2015 appearance in St. Paul: She doesn’t yet know how to stage an arena show.
Grande had the requisite dancers, 10 guys who moved with athleticism and nuance. She had enough changes of outfits, from all-black to all-white and haute couture in between. She had enough varied sets (a gym scene, fog-enveloped ballads) and gimmicks (a balloon drop, a shower of fake paper money).
But she never had the right staging. Too many times during the 85-minute performance, a concertgoer had to ask: Where’s Ariana?
The show was consistently dimly lit, with nary a spotlight on the superstar. Rather, she was usually bathed in dark hues of lavender, blue, red or green. During the encore of “Dangerous Woman,” all the lights were on her guitarist on the main stage as Grande, in a luxe latex-like black gown, unleashed that thunderous voice on the end of a runway awash in red lights and puffs of stage fog.
Was the goal to thwart fans with video cameras or did Grande just want to be heard and not seen?
Curiously, the show began with Grande’s four-man band hidden behind a curtain and she and her dancers on a barren white stage. Minimalism seemed to be the motif.
When Grande danced, she tended to blend in with the ensemble. Not that she’s much of a dancer. She can move, but it seemed like someone doing steps without any soul. Then again, she was trying to strut her stuff on 6-inch stiletto heels. And she seemed to be in perpetual motion. Or at least I think that was her, forever moving in the marginal lighting.
A few times, Grande slowed down to deliver a ballad like “Leave Me Lonely” and the breathy old-school “I Don’t Care.” Those were moments to behold.
Almost all the material was taken from her third and current album, last year’s “Dangerous Woman.” There was a message of feminism projected in her songs as well as during an interlude while she was changing outfits. Photos of her were shown on a giant screen captioned with a series of words including “soulful,” “raw,” “divine,” “not asking for it” and ending with “female.”
But then the former Nickelodeon teen star, whose audience is still populated with plenty of tweens and pre-tweens, spit out such lyrics as “ain’t you ever seen a princess be a bad bitch” in “Bad Decisions.” Maybe that’s her interpretation of feminism.
Grande had a number of bad decisions when it came to staging and pumping up the bass too loud on her club banger songs. But when she unleashed her voice — whether on the roof-raising hit “Bang Bang” or the career-defining “Problem” — it made you realize why 9,000 fans remain loyal to her. So loyal that many were sporting cat and bunny ears, which were Grande’s signature during her 2015 Honeymoon Tour.
Clearly, the honeymoon isn’t over. I’d bet those with the playful ears are going to go to “Beauty and the Beast” this weekend and hear their beloved Ariana sing the theme song, with John Legend.
Jon Bream • 612-673-1719 @JonBream