At 21 years of age, Ariana Grande - a four-octave light lyric soprano dubbed the "mini-Mariah" - has the world on a string, a notion she blithely, but solidly, embraced while singing and dancing in front of a sold-out crowd at the Wells Fargo Center on Thursday.
Grande is a Broadway veteran and has long been a staple of Nickelodeon children's television as Cat Valentine, an adored character in two different series inspiring her young girl fans (and their mothers) to wear lit-up cat ears, just as she does on stage. Grande's music - whether the Prince-like pomp of "Honeymoon Avenue," the fast and fluty "Why Try," or the fabulously giddy "Pink Champagne" - is insistently breathy. Every Euro-vibing, electro-induced layer is blowy, every atmospheric wash windy; every drum tick has a muffled, clamshell whoosh to it. On Thursday, Grande huffed and puffed through the likes of "Break Your Heart Right Back" and even floated above the crowd on a billowy cloud during "Best Mistake" as violinists played below.
There was energy in boy dancers randomly popping from trapdoors and Grande's cat-prances and back-kicks. Yet there was also a weird disconnect between the talented singer and the songs, as if Grande were uncomfortable on stage, didn't know what to do with her hands, or lost her personality somewhere between the shiny, shimmy-shimmy-shake of "Bang Bang" and the Soul II Soul-ish "Hands on Me."
This wasn't so bad. Not every singer has something that marks (and markets) them as do, say, the lusty zeal of Rihanna, the quiet dignity of Sam Smith, or the showy (OK, too much) spirit of Miley Cyrus. Such out-of-placeness just seemed ill-fitting on someone with such stage experience. Maybe every 21-year-old is a zombie these days. Blame the Internet.
Personality aside, Grande was a vocal treasure. Wriggling in a silver flapper's dress, she pulled out a high note on "The Way" that probably made dogs howl blocks away. Sitting atop a white piano during the snowy ballad "My Everything," she poured out her heart into the phrase "you too-oo-oooooo were my love," with a warm, passionate warble. She followed the lead of the percussive piano on "Be My Baby" and rode her lower register handsomely until breaking out the high notes.