NEW ORLEANS – Dressed as a sexy ringmaster and directing a colorful cast that included jugglers, acrobats and martial arts dancers, Britney Spears delivered a tightly choreographed, if perfunctory performance Tuesday night as she kicked off her first concert tour in five years.
The 27-year-old pop superstar's "Circus" tour kicked off in her home state of Louisiana at the New Orleans Arena before a nearly sold-out crowd that cheered on their idol as she gyrated and slithered across the stage while singing some of her biggest hits, from the recent "Womanizer" to her first and now classic song, "Baby One More Time."
The wild applause has been largely absent from Spears' life since the last time she went on tour in 2004, as the singer endured a devastating downward spiral: Due largely to personal troubles, she went from one of pop music's most profitable, in-demand entertainers to an out-of-control tabloid persona who seemed to be on a path to destruction.
But over the last year, that path has been reversed, as she has embarked on a successful comeback that has seen her image, as well as her career, rehabilitated.
The "Circus" tour was another strong step in the right direction. Spears didn't interact much with the crowd — the only thing she uttered to the audience was "Thank you, New Orleans" at the end of the nearly two-hour show — and appeared at times to be lip-synching. But fans didn't seem to care, screaming wildly at the first sight of Spears, who descended from the ceiling on hoops suspended by wires, wearing a short red and black ringmaster ensemble.
Spears started the show with the title track to her new CD, "Circus," then went right into "Piece of Me," which she performed largely from a cage, part of the elaborate, grandiose stage backdrops.
Acrobats twirled from suspended fabric as Spears sang and danced, showing off her toned body with flirty, seductive moves. She got frisky with two male dancers as she performed "Touch of My Hand" while sporting a blindfold.
When Spears slowed down the show for "Everytime," the audience could be heard singing the lyrics — "everytime I try to fly I fall, without my wings I feel so small" — along with her.
"We're so happy she's back," said 16-year-old Justin Scarbrough of New Orleans, wearing a T-shirt he designed himself that bears Spears' image and the words "I Support Britney Spears."
In the past five years, Spears has gone through more tumult than many endure in a lifetime: She's been married and divorced, had two kids, gone to rehab, gone through a custody battle, found herself briefly committed, and been so out of control that her father, Jamie Spears, was appointed by a court to oversee his daughters' personal and professional affairs indefinitely.
But over the past year, Spears' life and career has rebounded. Her "Circus" CD, released in December, has already sold more than 1.3 million copies, and she's had two hits off the CD, the No. 1 "Womanizer" and the top five "Circus."
Tuesday's "Circus" tour, which takes Spears to 27 cities in the United States before heading to Europe in June, is the pop star's biggest opportunity to connect with her still formidable fan base.
"That was awesome," said 21-year-old Lauren Baudoin of Lafayette, Louisiana, after the show. Baudoin's sister, 18-year-old Lindsey Baudoin, said she liked that there were entertainers between the songs.
"It kept going," Lindsey Baudoin said. "It was nonstop."