Ariana Grande Breaks Free and Into Tears at Madison Square Garden: Concert Review

Paul Familetti
Ariana Grande at Madison Square Garden
The petite diva effortlessly fills the arena with her four-octave range on fun, flirty numbers, staged with a heavy hand on production design. 

The petite diva turns up the volume on the Honeymoon Tour, her first arena jaunt with her back-to-back albums, 'Yours Truly' and 'My Everything.'

"Good music, good choreography and a great time — I want to make sure that my fans have the best night of their lives," Ariana Grande says in a video clip that opens her Honeymoon Tour. For the sea of preteens who donned lace or light-up cat-ears, it was 90 minutes of fun, flirty and frothy numbers, staged with heavy production design and filled by the petite diva's unfathomably huge voice. Which is exactly why they bought every ticket.

Grande's lighthearted arena jaunt, which includes two sold-out nights at Madison Square Garden, is the 21-year-old's first major touring effort after releasing two back-to-back albums and collecting comparisons to Mariah Carey for her four-octave soprano range and expert falsettos. Choosing to focus on music after breaking through on Nickelodeon's Victorious and Sam & Cat sitcoms, Grande still nods to her onscreen character, Cat Valentine, by donning a pair of elaborately embellished cat-ears with her now-signature cascading ponytail for most televised performances, and nearly every number in her show.

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And after the audience sang along loudest to Justin Bieber's "Boyfriend" just before showtime, Grande rose onstage to deafening screams for the party-starter "Bang Bang," complete with 11 dancers, sporadic fireworks, and bubblegum pink lights. Her set bounced between the best of Yours Truly and My Everything (plus a throwback to 2011's "Pink Champagne" and a plug for her Hunger Games: Mockingjay track "All My Love" with Major Lazer), and Big Sean, Nicky Minaj, Iggy Azalea, Childish Gambino and others who accompanied her via video screen, with Grande rapping along and a DJ pumping up the crowd. Yet it was the three-piece string section that enriched her set most, especially on "Tattooed Heart" and "One Last Time."

Grande's show hopped between the decades: the roaring Gatsby-esque '20s, the mod aesthetic of all her "Problem" performances to date, and the futuristic world of her "Break Free" video, each paired with a combination of smoke, fireworks, confetti and generic video graphics of lasers, clouds, rain or lightning. She disappeared via descending platforms very often, to swap in another of seven Marina Toybina looks (and matching ears) and make another grand entrance — floating in on a cloud for "Best Mistake," standing on a chandelier for "Right There" and appearing on a higher riser for "Love Me Harder." Such a heavy hand on production design to pump up number after number seemed occasionally unnecessary, as Grande shined most (articulation-less tendencies aside) when standing on a relatively bare stage, belting "Honeymoon Avenue" into her bejeweled mic and relishing every run with her eyes closed. One additional facet that did pay off: "Why Try" was prefaced with a video by Imogen Heap, who explained how her voice-manipulating Mi.Mu Gloves work just before Grande experimented with them live.

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However, the lifelong performer skipped and strutted comfortably across the venue's stage, just blocks away from the Bernard B. Jacobs Theatre where she first broke out in Broadway's teen musical 13 in 2008. A video stream showing the audience, which included her brother Frankie Grande and many other close friends, brought her to tears. "You guys have made me so emotional, … I'm so honored and excited to be here, thank you so much, cool, I love you," she kept repeating, and saying later, "I've already cried 65 times tonight, so I really don't want to cry again. ... I really love you guys on a personal level, talking to you guys on Twitter when I can't sleep and seeing you guys dance and sing."

These were the rare moments in which Grande addressed the audience directly, which made for what seemed like an emotionally-distant set. But for her fans — who follow her on every social media platform, which the singer uses liberally, intimately and without pretense — the concert was an opportunity to see the natural performer freely, as the scream-worthy pop star filled MSG for two consecutive nights (risers, fireworks and all) and impressively hit every single high note without missing a beat. So when Grande pleaded to her "babes" to sing the chorus of "My Everything" after she cried and apologized her way through the second verse, they happily obliged.

She did so just after getting notably personal by including an audio clip of a chat with her late grandfather. "Music — you want to do something in music? Go ahead and do it," he tells her. "Don't be afraid of it. There's so much music; you gotta work on it. Don't let them challenge you; don't let them intimidate you. Do your thing, that's the only way to do it."

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Set list:

Bang Bang
Hands on Me
Best Mistake
Break Your Heart Right Back
Be My Baby
Right There
The Way
Pink Champagne
Tattooed Heart
One Last Time
Why Try
My Everything
Love Me Harder
All My Love
Honeymoon Avenue
Break Free
Problem

Twitter: @cashleelee

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