Britney Spears

The Circus tour is so perverse and filled with such troubling, passive-aggressive imagery, you can't help but walk out wondering if her therapist (or parole officer) has seen this.

There were no untoward outbursts during Britney Spears’ Staples Center appearance Thursday night, but her Circus tour is so perverse and filled with such troubling, passive-aggressive imagery, you can’t help but walk out wondering if her therapist (or parole officer) has seen this.

She’s not the first female performer to use a circus as a metaphor (Madonna, Janet Jackson and Christina Aguilera beat her to it), but Spears’ version of the greatest show on earth is easily the most malign. Divided into four acts and an encore, the 90-minute spectacle, filled with dancers, tumblers, clowns and quite a bit of pyrotechnics, amounts to little more than a revenge fantasy against anyone who has wronged her — a list, one imagines, to be quite long.

For a start, Perez Hilton, who has long antagonized Spears, shows up here as an impotent queen introducing the star, only to be shot for his troubles. “There are two kinds of people in the world,” she sings in the show’s title song (and opening number), “the ones that entertain and the ones that observe.”

Spears leaves no doubt who is who, as the song’s chorus demands, “All eyes on me in the center of the ring/when I crack the whip, everyone’s gon’ trip.” But she ends up in a cage, rolled around the stage, singing, “You want a piece of me,” which, in this context, come off as less barroom braggadocio than a fact of her life.

For the rest of the evening, Britney is either the seductress or the put-upon. She wants to be the center of attention but doesn’t want anyone to look at her. A magician makes her disappear while she orgasmically coos “baby, baby, baby”; she is tossed into a Victorian-styled asylum for “Freakshow”; she’s a member of a harem for the Bollywood remix of “Me Against the Music”; and she cavorts in a surreal orgy while mouthing Marilyn Manson’s cover of “Sweet Dreams.” A short video presents clips of her various videos and makeovers; they go by so quickly, and are so wildly varied, it looks less like a career and more like a parade of “alters” from “The United States of Britney.”

Not even sex provides solace. “Get Naked” and “If You Seek Amy” are raunchy demands, but more often than not, she’s pushing men away, whether they’re fans, lovers or paparazzi. In one of the evening’s recurring themes, they’re slapped, pushed away or conked on the head by a mallet. She may call one of her dancers for a booty call during the intro of “Freakshow,” but the recipient is led to his fate like a prisoner walking his last mile. You soon find out why, as once he arrives for their assignation, he find himself harassed by clowns.

Given the star’s conflicted relationship with fame, her uninspired performance may just be part of the plot. With the exception of “Everytime,” a truncated ballad, she mimes to recorded vocals. Her dancing mostly consists of stamping her feet and flailing her arms (a favorite move is pounding her chest and flinging her arms out, a feckless display of dismissive power) while her troupe of dancers (which includes members of Big Apple Circus, who had a half-hour set immediately before Spears) surrounds her with Fosse-styled tableaux.

Given how little performing is involved, the Circus tour is not much more than a highly staged (tech credits are first rate) set of personal appearances, only without her having to sign autographs or come into direct contact with her fans. Given the antipathy on display, that probably suits Spears just fine.

Britney Spears

Staples Center; 19,000 capacity; $750 top

Production

Presented by AEG Live. Opened and reviewed April 16, 2009. closed April 17.

Cast

Band: Simon Ellis (musical director), Marc Delcore, Steven Rodriguez, Juan "Natural" Najera, Chris Bailey, Sofia Toufa, Shelly Sharman. Directed by Jamie King.
Also appearing: Big Apple Circus, Pussycat Dolls.

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