It's been more than a decade since Britney Jean Spears first strode to the center of the big-top ring and became a pop superstar. Does she still have what it takes to hold that title in 2009 -- and make fans forget the tabloid shark-chum of her personal struggles? Her tour, which kicked off March 3 in New Orleans, has already had its share of NSFW scandal and video leaks, but at a stop March 13 in Newark, New Jersey, the 27-year-old star proved she is still, as she coos on the title track of her sixth No. 1 album, December '08's Circus, "a put-on-a-show type of girl."
Openers the Pussycat Dolls provided a maniacally energetic set with hits like "Buttons," "When I Grow Up," and "Stickwitchu," set to much bendy, knee-cap-to-ear choreography; leader Nicole Scherzinger can actually sing live, which is admirable, though when she referred to Britney gamely as "the original Pussycat Doll," PCD founder Robin Antin must have spit out her garter belt. And the near-capacity crowd seemed happy to see them, responding uproariously to Scherzinger's destination-tailored Jersey shoutouts.
After a lengthy set-up time filled by various circus-y sideshow acts -- you've got at least 45 minutes to take a snack- and pee-break, promise -- and a high-camp video intro starring gossipeure Perez Hilton as a sort of deranged, baby-head-chomping Queen Elizabeth, Brit finally hit the stage to near-hysterical applause. And you know what? She looked good. Granted, the mother of two is no longer the wriggling Lolita of yesteryear; she moves a little slower, and sometimes seemed to need a rest -- hence her frequent sit-downs on various stage props. In fact, the show often felt more like a Vegas revue in which Spears appears as the special guest star, disappearing frequently beneath the stage for extended periods (costume changes? Mani-pedi touch-ups? Time-outs for Jayden and Sean Preston? We know not!) while the circus carried on without its ringmistress.
Still, the 90-minute spectacle was tightly choreographed and loaded with sensory effects: dancers dropping from the ceiling like spandexed spiders, elaborate Moulin Rouge-style sets, and flashy, flesh-baring costumes, including a Bollywood-ized take on "Me Against the Music." The symbolism of placing the singer inside a golden cage for the press-excoriating "Piece of Me" was not lost on the audience, though frequent forays into S&M style theatrics a la Sex-era Madonna seemed a little dark for a largely young, female crowd (cue the extended video clip of La Spears, seemingly in the midst of an Eyes Wide Shut-style orgy, writhing to Marilyn Manson's dark-side cover of the Eurythmics' "Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This)"). The material itself drew heavily from her last two albums ("Radar," "Womanizer," "Freakshow") with a few forays into olden times ("Everytime," "...Baby One More Time") and the JumboTron pulsed out a constant stream of visuals in place of a closeup on the singer herself, likely because she appeared to be lip-synching to a pre-recorded "live" track throughout. Still, is anyone genuinely shocked and dismayed at that revelation? Apparently not; as one satisfied young show-goer put it, "You don't go to hear her sing. You go to see Britney, period."You've got until May 2 to catch her on tour in the U.S., Music Mixers. Will you go see her? Have you already? Or does the whole idea just sound toxic?