At points in Monday night's Ariana Grande concert at the Pepsi Center, it was hard to tell if she was even there. Her voice was there, albeit blotted out by the overwhelming bass, but for 75 percent of the concert, the performer was in the dark – literally.
In all of the futuristic lighting and effects rolled out by this high-cost production, it seemed that the person running the spotlight had taken the night off, leaving the diminutive pop star hidden in plain sight, more or less appearing like an anthropomorphized version of her trademark oversized, bulky jacket, a giant clump of fabric on stilettos who barely acknowledged her audience.
Prior to the hour-long performance by Grande's jacket was Victoria Monét, another artist outdone by her own props. Monét did a stereotypically sexy pop-dance routine to songs like "Made in China" and "Better Days" while flinging around what looked like a silky bed sheet as she was forced to do battle with a high-powered fan pointed directly at her face. There's always a striking disparity between the budget for a headliner and the little money thrown at a supporting act on a pop show like this, and Monét's production was no exception. Forced to perform on a desert island of a stage, alone, in front of a sheet covering the upcoming act's staging, her less than twenty-minute set flew by awkwardly.
Next was Little Mix, a group that also fell victim to the overpowering bass that would later muddy Grande's performance. The British pop act was at least given the budget for some visuals plus a handful of fatigue-clad dancers, but buried underneath the garbled low end, it was hard to make out songs like "Shout Out to My Ex" and "Touch." The group did what it could with what it had, but there just wasn't much to Little Mix beyond some forceful dance moves.
A few minutes before 9 p.m., a countdown clock appeared on sheets covering Grande's stage setup, images of the singer and her dancers making kissy face offered up as entertainment during the wait. When she did appear, it was to throw down some tired vogueing, flanked by a large crew of dancers dressed in all black doing the same. Her voice is just incredible. Songs like "Be Alright" and "Everyday" allowed for her powerhouse vocals to cut through, even as the bass tried to drown her.
The backdrop — a floor-to-ceiling curtain made of white fringe that extended out from either side in a wing shape — looked beautiful and throughout the night portrayed live projections of Grande's face mixed with celestial imagery and moving images of the interior of a cathedral. But the drama of these images wasn't enough to make up for the fact that it was hard to see the actual performance happening in real time. Often lit from the bottom by moody LEDs and doused in fog-machine excess, Grande's disappearing act throughout the night quickly grew tiring.
The typical bells and whistles of a big pop show abounded, columns built into the floor rising and falling with the pop star's dancers tethered to them, lasers shooting out in every direction and lots of dramatic trap-door action.
Another perplexing component of the evening was when Grande's live band appeared, a group of musicians who played during certain parts of the show but spent a lot of time standing around while pre-recorded string sections took center stage. "Knew Better/Forever Boy" "One Last Time" and "Leave Me Alone" were among the hits Grande ran through, her strong voice and equally accomplished choreography begging for the chance to actually be heard and seen by a very excited audience.
The best part of the night came with Grande's reenactment of the Nicki Minaj-starring "Side to Side" video, as the entire stage was lit up and transformed into a gym. The pop star came into view on a spin bike, riding the equipment while wearing massive heels and managing to sing in perfect time. Performing while exercising in stilettos is a serious feat for many reasons, but add to that Denver's altitude, and it was like watching a Guinness Book of World Records performance. After more than an hour on stage, Grande disappeared at the close of "Into You," appearing moments later in a shiny black patent-leather dress for an encore of "Dangerous Woman."
The downfall of Ariana Grande's show wasn't that she relied on props and dancers to make herself seem interesting on stage, and it wasn't that the excessive bass dampened the spirit and power of her voice; it was the heavy hand of a set designer that seemed to put ego before the actual star of the show.
More attention — and light — was focused on sets of stairs, fringe curtains and trap doors than on the singer. Overly conceptual pop shows might work on television and even look good if presented in a smaller venue, but if thousands of people in an arena are expected to enjoy a show they paid to see, someone investing in an old-school spotlight would go a long way.