Whatever else it may be, Ariana Grande’s Sweetener World Tour is not a “get to know your superstar” affair. On record, Grande has ably followed Taylor Swift down the trail of openly autobiographical pop… but that’s on record. In concert, she couldn’t be less Swiftian. Audience interaction and between-song commentary are at a minimum. There are no roaring lulls where performer and fans bask together in how far they’ve all come together. If you’ve come to hear monologs about how the last couple of years have gone for Grande (and wouldn’t we all love to get an earful on that?), boy, have you come to the wrong place.
But you’ve come to the right place if you want a pop show that’s giddy, splendorous, beautifully designed, expertly performed and almost a little bit avant-garde in its staging. If you’re willing to swap all the personal asides you might expect out of a typical pop-diva show for something that’s more of an experimental visual art piece that happens to include terrifically fun songs and performances, it’s not such a bad tradeoff. At the very least, if you were at Staples Center Monday for the first of her three L.A.-area appearances, you walked away knowing you’d just witnessed something that, design-wise, you’d never exactly seen before.
You definitely didn’t see it if you “saw” her shows at Coachella in April, either in person or live-streamed — as all the tweeted cries of “Turn on the lights!” made clear at the time. Your eyes, your computer screen or the big screens in Indio did not need adjusting: The show really is that dark. That’s an artistic choice, not an energy-savings decision, made by Grande herself, whose production and lighting designer, Leroy Bennett, recently explained to Variety that the singer prefers to blend in with her environment on stage (or on TV) rather that be spotlit to stand out. Hers is an intensely colorful show, but using hues as dim as Swift’s are bright in the “ME!” video. All those deeply muted pinks and purples made it impossible to separate her from her dancers or guest stars from across that giant field in Indio.
But suspicions that this design would look a lot more impressive within the relatively intimate confines of an arena were confirmed at Staples Center, where some added production elements that weren’t possible in a festival setting also came into play. There is method to her underlighting madness, after all: In its native setting, he show is a thing of constantly surprising visual beguilement. Suddenly, Donna Summer’s “dim all the lights, sweet darling” seems like fine advice.
That Grande wants to put a dimmer on everything is a show of alpha-female strength: She trusts that you know and like her enough that you’ll take the effort to pick her out of the colorful tableau from all the other choreography on stage. But that is a challenge for the first three numbers. After an off-stage a cappella rendition of “Raindrops (An Angel Cried),” we first spot Grande — or don’t! — as she and a cast of dancer-disciples appear behind a long table, Last Supper-style, for “God is a Woman.” There they stay for “Bad Idea,” in which couples start pairing off… and Grande pushes away a man at one end of the banquet table, only to end the song by embracing a woman at the other end. (Giving up on men and switching teams is a good idea, this production number seems to conclude.) Most of the dancers drop away and Grande comes more into focus as she’s left with just one suitor for “Break Up With Your Girlfriend, I’m Bored,” the conclusion of the show’s opening erotic-city trilogy.
After a brief video interlude masking a changeover, the real scope of the design started to become apparent. For “R.E.M.,” one of the highlights of last year’s “Sweetener” album, torrents of water not only came down the big screen behind the stage — as they did at Coachella — but cascaded across the ramp enclosure that extended more than halfway out onto the arena’s floor level. It was a startling effect … with the projection effect only partly visible to anyone who was actually atfloor level, but we all live with our choices in life and shows. Also unique to the non-festival version of the tour is an overhead half-globe, mirroring the one attached to the rear screen, that late into the show drops down and reveals itself as a full planet, just in time for the latest album’s “NASA.” Different kinds of real or sci-fi starfields appeared as Grande corrected Kubrick and assured everyone in song that her personal, sexual space is the ultimate trip.
The effects got headier: Giant silhouetted bodies appeared in both globes. Lest anyone think that Grande is married to vivid colors and doesn’t do monochrome, a trippy, animated kaleidoscopic effect was rendered in pure black-and-white. Some of this design would have been perfectly appropriate for a Pink Floyd show, or for whichever member might be currently out reviving “Set the Controls for the Heart of the Sun.” But under or amid it all, Grande cuts a very un-Roger-Waters-esque figure… not so energized that she won’t just take a seat with her dancers at the lip of the stage when the balladic mood requires it, but also gaily skipping across that ramp when the choices start sounding like trap and house music again.
Even the ramp feels inventive, in a slight way — that platform that envelops the SRO pit is vaguely in a V shape, but a very inexact, curvy V shape, because there are no straight lines in this very feminine design. The ramp also comes with its own trap doors, so dancers can pop in and out; it’s virtually impossible to count how many dancers Grande does employ, since there are such different numbers of them from song to song. For the encore number, “Thank U, Next,” Grande did jubilant laps around that stage extension with just her female dancers in tow, presumably to reinforce the lyrical theme that living without a man in her life for a while is just fine. And then the guy dancers finally popped out from below to join them for the finale, too, because what’s inclusion without boys allowed?
For anyone who wants a closer-up view of these artsy proceedings, there are a couple of “big screens” as part of the production, but these two ovals above the stage on either side really aren’t that big, by arena standards — it’s kind of one step up from looking through Kanye’s keyhole. Having made that concession, Grande would still rather compel you to look at the entire landscape… which may take some adjusting for audiences that have never experienced a concert through any other means than going to the arena and staring at the camera feed the entire time. (Anyone who really wants close-ups of Grande’s expressions is going to have to do what concertgoers of the ‘60s, ‘70s and partly ‘80s did: invest in binoculars.)
The Sweetener Tour doesn’t just skate by on mass skipping and innovative production design. She’s singing live, from all indications (and you may end up thinking about how she kind of threw herself under the bus with her “everybody does it”-themed tweets defending pal Justin Bieber’s lip-synch). The four-piece band, while augmented, was giving all this material a determinedly live backbeat, too, with actual drum fills and… what’s this, kids?… piano and guitar solos along the way. One of Grande’s best attributes is how little she cares about showing off, vocally — the songs are so compact that she’s almost forced to sneak the melisma in.
But the entire show has that strength of economy, working 30 songs into 95 minutes by shortening nearly all of them… which can be frustrating, when even the best of them end sooner than you’d expect or like, until you develop faith that what quickly follows will be just as worthy. The set could really stand to be expanded by another 15 or 20 minutes, which wouldn’t be rough if she, say, lost one out of two opening acts — but there’s some wisdom in the way this show rushes through its paces without unnecessary lingering. It ends up being one semi-long mood-piece medley, comprising the audio part of a show that’s built to look like a mood ring.
What really gets squeezed out, quite deliberately, in this steady clip is those aforementioned personal moments. Early in the tour, Grande was seen to cry before or during “No Tears Left to Cry,” which satisfied the need an audience might have for being reassured that she’s really in the moment. But a little further along into it, the woman who sings about not wanting to put on a “Fake Smile” isn’t about to give her audience fake tears, or phony anything. Grande leaving her confessions on the record and getting to the visceral dazzle seems like a feature, not a flaw, of this tour. Exuberant execution of a fascinating and challenging design ethos counts as an emotion, too, or should. With a show this visually and musically engaging — pop-soul set in a female-centric, sci-fi variant of a woozy nightclub — she’s not obligated to wear her heart out on her thigh-high boot.
Grande performs again at the Staples Center Tuesday night, with a move over to the Forum in Inglewood Friday.