Ariana Grande performs at the peak of her powers at packed Fiserv Forum show in Milwaukee

Piet Levy
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
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Ariana Grande performed in Milwaukee for the second time of her career at a packed Fiserv Forum Friday night.

But the difference from her last appearance was so vast, it was like she was a completely different person.

Back in the ancient times that were 2015, Grande played the Bradley Center for just the second full-scale concert of her career, saddled with a production and stage demands that didn't play to her strengths, and understandably nervous to be performing in such a vast room so quickly.

Four years later, she's become one of the premiere pop stars in the world — a fact reinforced by Friday's jubilant return to Milwaukee.

Ariana Grande, pictured here performing "Thank U, Next" on "The Ellen DeGeneres Show" last year, brought her "Sweetener Tour" to Fiserv Forum in Milwaukee Friday. Press photography was not permitted.

She didn't prove herself with a huge production. The stage setup was rather simple — a circular runway, a four-piece band performing in the shadows, a back wall and two orbs that served as video screens for CG neighborhoods, solar systems and the like.

She had a dozen dancers, but their primary job was to provide a vibe, strutting down the walkway for "Side to Side" as Grande twisted her legs in her thigh-high boots, and posing like statues as smoke lifted off their bodies for "Needy."  

It was so much more relaxed than that last Milwaukee show, and infinitely better. Nothing about Grande's choreography or casual flips of her pony tail were that remarkable Friday, but the ease of her performance was infectious. She now had the confidence, and star power, to lead the way.

And the voice, of course. Those powerful pipes have long been Grande's signature, the first indication of inevitable superstardom, and they were splendid Friday.

The night began with Grande singing "Raindrops (An Angel Cried)" offstage, her voice soaring, and inspiring, even with its host out of sight. That voice has been reined in in recent years — big vocals aren't big on pop radio these days — but she let the vocal runs fly free Friday for "Sweetener," "Break Your Heart Right Back" and "Dangerous Woman."

And it was especially powerful during "Breathin' " — not just because of her vocal strength, but because of the context. 

To say Grande has gone through a lot these past four years is an understatement, and that's outside of her music career. The death of her ex-boyfriend and past collaborator Mac Miller. The media frenzy surrounding her whirlwind engagement with Pete Davidson. Manchester. 

Grande didn't address any of those Friday, aside from a few flashes of old tweets near the show's end that expressed gratitude to her fans during some troubling times.

But she didn't need to. She's managed to endure, thrive even, with addictive and empowering songs on last year's "Sweetener" and this year's "Thank U, Next," filled with positivity and perseverance.

Songs like "Breathin'," where Grande, and her fans softly singing along, powered through their anxieties together Friday. Or "Fake Smile," where Grande at Fiserv Forum acknowledged it's OK to not pretend to be OK. 

Or Friday's finale "Thank U, Next," where Grande offered gratitude to the lessons she learned from past lovers, and vowed to become a better person.

The lyrics are explicitly about Grande, but the song's empowering message of self-love is universal, and was deeply felt at Fiserv Forum.

"I've got so much love/Got so much patience," she sang. "I've learned from the pain/I turned out amazing."

Yeah, she certainly did. 

The openers 

Pop duo Social House basically ran around the runway for 10 minutes singing over a backing track, but Normani made an impression Friday.

Backed by a band and dancing crew completely made up of black women (a rare and welcome sight at an arena show), Normani showed off the nimble dance moves and stage presence she honed with girl group Fifth Harmony — and did a crowd-pleasing medley of Fifth Harmony songs, including “Bo$$” and “Work From Home.” She had to fill the half-hour, but with recent hits like the Sam Smith collaboration “Dancing With a Stranger,” her solo career (and solo set) are off to a good start.

The takeaways 

  • Friday's 90-minute show featured a couple nice moments of LGBTQ solidarity. Grande and her dancers waved rainbow flags at the end of "Thank U, Next," and "Break Free," performed under rainbow lights, was recast as a pride anthem. 
  • Grande wasn’t very talkative Friday, but the show did feature a silly home video of a precocious preteen Grande pretending to be a newscaster. And the clip proved, even at that age, Grande understood that Jack’s death in “Titanic” was ridiculous. (Why didn’t you share the door, Rose? Why?!)
  • The show also had a special security policy prohibiting any bags from being inside the building unless they were see-through. Despite the rare requirement, entry seemed to happen without a hitch.
  • There were so many ladies and girls at Friday’s show that many of the men’s restrooms at Fiserv Forum were converted into women’s restrooms. And I’d wager one in every 50 people had a Grande-style pony tail (including the lady next to me, whose tail kept whacking me as she danced).

The set list 

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Contact Piet at (414) 223-5162 or Follow him on Twitter at @pietlevy or Facebook at

Piet also talks concerts, local music and more on "TAP'd In" with Jordan Lee. Hear it at 8 a.m. Thursdays on WYMS-FM (88.9), or wherever you get your podcasts.

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