NEW YORK -- For the first hour, Ariana Grande kept to her cues.
The teen TV star turned urban-pop ingenue isn't exactly known for her choreography -- her terrific, diva-in-training chops usually outplay her mediocre dance routines -- but within the demanding confines of her new Dangerous Woman tour, Grande was sure to nail every strut and flip of her Mariah-mimic high ponytail.
All the while she wailed, and the Madison Square Garden crowd Thursday could actually hear her; the sound techs kept the singer's live vocal cranked high above the backing track and she plowed mid-stride through her playlist of sky-scraping runs. She even kept pace while peddling an exercise bike: a mirror image of her Top 10 hit "Side to Side's" music video.
Polish and practice gleamed in every move Grande made -- until she addressed her fans.
"Thank you guys for having me," was all the slight singer could squeak out before she froze. A hand covered her perfectly contoured face.
Grande began to weep, ostensibly overcome with gratitude to the full, screaming house, the first of back-to-back nights in New York for the 23-year-old star.Ariana Grande performs live at Madison Square Garden on her Dangerous Woman tour. Feb. 23, 2017. (Mark Brown | For NJ.com)
Grande took a second to compose herself, her makeup too unflawed to mess, and continued: "I love you very much," before she began to crack again.
A moment of emotional volatility seemed warranted; the ex-Nickelodeon actress is traversing pop puberty before our eyes, shedding the bubblegum bounce of 2014's smash "Problem" and the syrupy ballad "One Last Time" for last May's "Dangerous Woman" LP, a cohesive album of electro-R&B jams and sex-soaked sentiments that caters wonderfully to the singer's four-octave range.
Following suit, Grande's new tour touts her sultry record in full, and provides little attention to anything else. The hits not featured on "Dangerous Woman" -- her cluster of radio-dominant singles that includes "Problem, "Break Free," and the Jessie J collab "Bang Bang" -- were remixed into a thumping, melodically austere afterthoughts. It almost felt like self-sabotage, like Grande's team purposely pulled some punch from the old standards to aim focus toward the new, more mature tunes.
Her stage set-up, an immense white fringe curtain that stretched full across the arena and acted as a chameleonic screen, felt more adult as well, a minimalist scheme of whites, blacks, and grays in line with recent tours from Selena Gomez, Drake and Rihanna -- an artist Grande seems to mimic more and more.
Though her familiar A-frame dress and high boots began the night, '90s style seemed an inexplicably prominent theme: the traipsing R&B opener "Be Alright" featured gray-washed on-screen vogueing, her baggy second outfit screamed TLC heyday, the oversized pants in her last costume change reminded of garish JNCO jeans, and her troupe of muscly male dancers were often dressed like the Backstreet Boys circa their "Millennium" era.Ariana Grande performs live at Madison Square Garden on her Dangerous Woman tour. Feb. 23, 2017. (Mark Brown | For NJ.com)
But even as the setlist and appearance of this new tour have been decidedly altered from Grande's first Garden visit, on 2015's Honeymoon Tour, her stellar vocal range remains the unblemished, unwavering star of the night.
Her choreography kept the show rolling, but the most arresting moments (by far) came when the singer stopped at a mic stand or sat on the stage and belted, for the more nuanced jams "Touch It" and "Leave Me Lonely." It's been widely reported how Grande takes influence from Mariah Carey and Whitney Houston, and in the live setting her talent wasn't so far off.
Few of her dance-pop contemporaries could rip so many runs -- no song this night was without a soaring vocal trick or two -- and manage what was vocally an unrelenting, 90-minute set list. Only on the night's bumping finisher "Into You" did she begin to strain.
Otherwise she, a four-piece band and her eight dancers bounded along, through the album's less-than-subtle innuendos (her latest single's hook goes "he give it to me everyday, everyday, everyday"). The rest of "Dangerous Woman" unthreateningly stays the course.
Grande somehow maintained a bit of earnestness amid the lust, and shoehorned a stance of solidarity for her LGBT fans, before the ballad "Thinking Bout You."
"It might seem like a scary time to be yourself," she said. "... but your differences are so beautiful. You inspire me."Ariana Grande's Dangerous Woman Tour set list
Madison Square Garden, Feb. 23, 2017
- "Be Alright"
- "Bad Decisions"
- "Let Me Love You"
- Interlude (Unreleased Song)
- "Knew Better" Pt. II
- "Forever Boy"
- "One Last Time"
- "Touch It"
- "Leave Me Lonely"
- Interlude (Feminists)
- "Side to Side"
- "Bang Bang"
- "I Don't Care"
- Band Interlude
- "Love Me Harder"
- "Break Free"
- "Thinking Bout You"
- "Better Days" (with opener Victoria Monet)
- "Into You"
- "Dangerous Woman"
Bobby Olivier may be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @BobbyOlivier and Facebook. Find NJ.com on Facebook.
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