Her singing was dominated by a backing track. Her moves were nothing special -- defined by much strutting and stripper-like shimmying, with the minimum amount of acrobatics to prove her mettle as a dance-pop queen. Her physical form, still beautiful, didn't take one's breath away the way it did when she was 17.
But on Tuesday's opening night of her "Circus" tour at the New Orleans Arena, Britney Spears, the mighty Aphrodite with the troublesome tawdry streak, nonetheless renewed her claim as one of the world's most adept manipulators of the public interest. Powering through a 90-minute show that integrated her impetuous teen hits with the more perverse material from the albums she released after a very public breakdown that made her a constant in the tabloids, the Louisiana native flashed her famous good ol' girl smile at the fans, mostly female, who still find her a worthy patron saint of the erotic arts.
The intensely bespangled show -- which sticks closely to the big-top theme that also defines her latest album -- featured a huge array of tricks and extra players, including jugglers, clowns, magicians, martial artists, acrobats and rings of fire. Somewhere in there was Spears herself, looking hearteningly happy as she took on the role of ring mistress, clearly relishing the chance to prove herself healthy and in control.
The evening began with a performance by the Big Apple Circus that included a female acrobat who stumbled once on the beam but got right up and performed a stunning back flip. The faux pas wasn't staged, but might have been; Spears has similarly stumbled, nearly losing her children in a custody battle, and then losing control of her own affairs after her father was declared her legal guardian last year. This tour is her all-important comeback; if it fails, her career will effectively be over.
It will not fail. She is back up on the beam. The director, Jamie King, has made sure of that. If your star is a bit unstable, the best solution is to surround her with a backing troupe that can step in when she fumbles. Much like her music, the "Circus" tour is all about added value. Instead of purchasing the coolest new beats and synth-pop augmentations, King and Spears signed up those experienced carny stars to not only fill in the gaps between numbers but enhance -- distract from? -- her own time onstage.
One constant challenge for Spears and her collaborators is how to adapt the soft-core erotica at the heart of her self-expression to the family audience that's somehow stuck with her since she left "The All New Mickey Mouse Club." The circus motif proved ideal. Circuses are magical and creepy, home to pink-tutu-wearing high-wire princesses and creepy bearded ladies, loved by children but famously run by flim-flam artists and freaks. In the circus, Spears finds her perfect metaphor for her own life as the world's favorite fallen angel. This particular iteration of a theme that Madonna and Christina Aguilera have also explored neatly balanced the wholesome with the downright nasty; though its scenarios were obvious, they still worked well under Spears' command.
Most daring was a sequence that began with a video that showed masked interlopers borrowed from the Stanley Kubrick film "Eyes Wide Shut," who writhed about on divans as Spears mouthed the Marilyn Manson version of the Eurythmics song "Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This"). Spears then emerged to reenact the scene wearing two versions of a white-gold gymnast's leotard with her erogenous zones highlighted in black. She gave a lap dance to a clown; she was lifted aloft by a pair of acrobats and did some simulated heavy petting. In truth, nothing matched the raciest moments of Janet Jackson's last tour, but as mainstream erotica, it was effective.
This sequence wasn't quite as much fun, however, as the Bollywood version of "Me Against the Music," based around some well-choreographed group dancing, complete with Spears making mudras with her hands in a gorgeous green and gold harem pants ensemble. The night's take on "Hot As Ice" was especially playful, with Spears serving as an assistant to "the Misfit of Magic," Edward Alonzo. He even made her disappear.
One moment during the night did seem like a mistake. Spears disappeared several times during the set, to change costumes or allow her fellow performers a chance to show their skills. At one point, however, she didn't seem to resurface. Her backing singers awkwardly stood center stage as her voice drifted forth, as if from beneath the stage. Maybe I just couldn't see her from her my vantage point -- the show is in the round, playing further on the image of the three-ring circus. But she seemed to miss her cue.
Despite that first-night stumble and several numbers in which her dancing was no more than adequate, Spears can safely call this performance a success. She apparently has no interest in proving herself as a vocalist; Pink is a better acrobat and her friend Justin Timberlake is a far better dancer.
But anyone who thinks her lackluster would do well to remember what she really is: a burlesque performer, a carny's dream born a century or so too late to be fated to ply her art upon the midway, but able to fulfill the spectacle of blond ambition now.