Concert review: Ariana Grande at the Schott

Andy Downing
Ariana Grande

Ariana Grande’s concert at a packed Schottenstein Center on Monday opened with a lunar eclipse, the pop star making her appearance as the sun and moon sparred on the giant video screen behind the stage.

It was a fitting introduction to a concert that took place largely in the shadows, Grande delivering her songs amid a series of darkened backdrops that mirrored streetlight-illuminated suburban neighborhoods and an endless cosmos dotted with planets, stars and swirling galaxies. Rather than an energy-saving nod to global warming, or an ode to the much-maligned, tar-black Battle of Winterfell on “Game of Thrones,” the choice was an artistic one, with production and lighting designer LeRoy Bennett telling Variety that Grande doesn’t like certain things about standard concert lighting, leading him to employ softer illumination. “It’s not a dark show,” he said, “but it is somewhat of a darker show.”

Musically, Grande countered these visuals with luminescent songs that frequently uplifted and empowered.

The singer has overcome a number of real-life tragedies in recent years, including a 2017 show where a suicide bomber killed 23 people as fans were exiting the arena in Manchester, England. Then in 2018, ex-boyfriend and rapper Mac Miller died of an accidental drug overdose. During this same stretch, Grande’s professional career has continued to ascend. Since releasing her self-titled debut in 2013, the singer has landed five consecutive million-selling albums, including two, Sweetener and Thank U, Next, released five months apart in 2018 and ’19, both of which find Grande soaring high above her sorrows.

The trend continued here, as Grande turned in buoyant numbers like “Get Well Soon,” which contained a series of millennial-approved self-help slogans (“Unfollow fear and just say you are blocked”). “No Tears Left to Cry,” accompanied by surrealist video images that looked like an M.C. Escher drawing sprung to life, espoused a similar sense of optimism. “I’m loving and living and picking it up,” she sang.

On record, Grande hasn’t shied from autobiographical details, but the concert was a comparatively brusque, impersonal affair. Banter was kept to a minimum — save for the seemingly arena-required “O-H, I-O” call-and-response — and songs were often abbreviated or combined into medleys as a result of trying to compress years of radio dominance into a single night.

Some of the best moments arrived when the singer simply reminded herself to slow down. “Just keep breathing,” she sang on one song as the BPMs in the music briefly decelerated to match this chilled pulse.

Despite the relentless forward momentum, Grande managed to accomplish more than to simply hold an arena-sized grief-recovery seminar, continuing to build on an image of uplifting female empowerment that has taken shape over several albums, encapsulating all elements of womanhood, be it sensuality, heartbreak or, yes, hope.

Grande opened the concert belting out “God Is a Woman” while flanked by a dozen dancers who formed a Last Supper-esque tableau at a long table. This religious passion turned sexual with “Bad Idea,” which followed and found Grande and her dancers staging a lusty dinner party.

Elsewhere, Grande strolled down nighttime suburban streets on “7 Rings,” which borrowed its melody from Rodgers and Hammerstein’s “My Favourite Things” and its visual imagery from “Stranger Things,” the peaceful neighborhood scene taking on a more ominous character as glowing graffiti appeared on the houses, making them appear suddenly abandoned.

“NASA,” appropriately, took place deep in outer space, with a giant “moon” dropping from the rafters and stars swirling on the widescreen as Grande sang of making “one giant leap for womankind.” “Get Well Soon” followed, allowing Grande a bit more time to stroll among the stars even as her earthly troubles started to exude gravitational force. “My body’s here on Earth but I’m floating,” she sang, allowing herself a final moment of peace before returning to the harsh light of reality.