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Singing an afterthought as Britney Spears plays to her crowd at the MGM Grand

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Illustration: Chris Morris

The question you would naturally ask of Britney Spears, the artist in concert, is, “Is she singing?” It is fair to ask, as singing is integral to a performance by any recording star, but Spears seems to have rendered moot that question. It is so evident she doesn’t sing. She can’t be singing. She’s running the equivalent of several 100-meter dashes across three stages – one a giant circle set in the middle of the arena, and two other smaller circular platforms on either side – and never sounds winded. There is no panting, gasping, or lapses in her perfectly balanced vocal track to indicate that she is actually singing without some sort of technical assistance or audio augmentation. There are no big screens to show the audience her pretty face, to match her mouth movements to the soaring vocals filling the arena.

But Spears has pulled a fast one on us. Her astonishingly loyal fans don’t seem to care if she’s singing, or even if she addresses them directly. Last night I attended Spears’ “Circus” performance at the Grand Garden Arena, an 85-minute showcase during which she changed costumes a dozen times and spoke hardly at all to her wildly loyal fans. People traveled from across the globe, or at least the hemisphere – I sat in front of four young women who made the trip from Windsor, Ontario, just for the show – to watch Spears perform. Spears never took time to get real, to say, “You know, I’ve been through a lot already in my career, but here I am, in fabulous Las Vegas, giving you my best, because I’m still just a gal from Louisiana who loves to dance around in shiny lingerie and three-inch heels.”

Instead, she waited nearly 30 minutes before asking, “Las Vegas! How you doin’?” Thirty minutes later it was, “Las Vegas, you rock!” If you sub in, say, “Phoenix” or “L.A.” as the city, and it’s the same shtick she performs at every tour stop. But if those in last night’s announced sellout crowd of 14,500 who paid up to $275 face value for tickets at the Grand Garden don’t care is she sings or even talks, who’s harmed? At this level of entertainment, ignorance is not only bliss, it’s euphoric. After two songs, when it became obvious we were watching the grandest karaoke act ever, I turned to one of the Canadians, Rosanna DiCarlo of Windsor, and asked, “What do you think so far?”

“Totally worth it,” she shouted.

More from the stage and the crowd during the aptly titled “Circus.”:

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Kathi Grubbs waited at the back of the horde at one of the souvenir stands at the Grand Garden. Her 28- and 23-year-old daughters were buying Spears memorabilia (like a $60 sweatshirt that read, “It’s Brit,”) and said the tickets were an early mother’s day present. To her. “I like her energy, and I think she’s been given a raw deal in the press,” Grubbs said. “The life of a celebrity can be pretty tough. I think a lot of what has happened to her could happen to anybody, but the press is always following her around and reporting it. That can’t be easy.”

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During “Get Naked,” Spears donned a top hat and sequined bikini, with knee-high boots and a purple tie. She was never left alone onstage, and for this number there were so many couches and loveseats littering the stage that the scene looked like a clearance sale at Walker Furniture. Spears would later dance inside a hanging frame, and prance around the stage bopping backup dancers on their heads with a furry pink mallet, turning the set into a camped-up carnival game.

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In November 1999 I saw Ricky Martin at the then-new Mandalay Bay Events center, in his “Livin’ La Vida Loca” prime. Up until last night, that was the loudest crowd response for an artist’s entrance I’d ever heard. But when Spears made her appearance for “Circus,” lowered to the stage while wearing black briefs, a red military-cut jacket with furry black epaulets and carrying a long black whip, the piercing roar of 14,500 young lungs was deafening.

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A red, sheen curtain served as the show’s video screen and was used for all sorts of artistic purposes. Sometimes it was Spears crawling around in her undies with assorted men who we wearing Victorian Era-styled masks. But it was also a commercial tool – halfway through the show, Spears made a pitch on that screen for tour sponsor Virgin Mobile (total unlimited calling for $49 a month!). Even the devotees seated around me were wondering, “What?”

**

The mother-daughter combo of Andria and Brittany White made the trip from Denver. “I like her music, of course,” Andria said. “She’s kind of like a comeback kid.” Brittany was not named for Spears. They flew in Saturday morning and were to leave this morning, in town just for the show.

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For 15 minutes before Spears hit the stage and during the many lengthy breaks in action, an assortment of circus-styled performers kept the audience entertained. They were great, too. Among them were a guy in a red-and-yellow, tie-dye costume spinning a giant cube; juggling clowns; acrobats performing gravity-defying martial arts moves, a lady in a skin-tight costume spinning dozens of hula hoops, a woman lofted high into the air by two guys manning a flexible plank no wider than a balance beam, and a quite-talented juggling dwarf. It was Cirque du Britney with a splash of Beacher’s Madhouse, and if you stripped the supporting cast from the production, Spears would have had little to work with. You’d have cheaper tickets than $275, too.

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Cielo Darnell works at a Las Vegas Home Depot and her husband, Ryan, works in the warehouse for Southern Wine & Spirits of Nevada. Cielo is a Spears fan who has “loved Britney forever,” and dragged her husband to the show because in 2005 he dragged her to Paul McCartney and the Rolling Stones at the MGM Grand. That’s the exchange rate in the Darnell household – one Spears show equals McCartney and the Stones. Cielo admitted, “I wanted to see her before she goes totally, totally crazy.”

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Spears onstage attire could be broken down loosely into two groups: Bejeweled negligee and some interpretation of military or law enforcement costumes. I liked the cop uniform she wore for “Womanizer,” when Spears took on the look of a Metro officer if that officer were to wear glittery black briefs. The number ended in a shower of sparks.

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If you put this type of staging around any entertainer, and my thoughts were of Michael Jackson’s upcoming shows at O2 Arena in London, you almost can’t miss. All the artist has to do is show up. Anyone could be up there in the middle of the spectacle and the crowd is entertained. I came out of this thinking that the Jacko shows, if treated similarly, could actually work. And that would mean he could, conceivably, make a run at The Colosseum and wouldn’t that be a circus.

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Carlos Riviera and John Cardinelli sat in the row behind me, next to Team Canada. John works for Fred Meyer jewelers at the Fashion Show mall and owed that he is “obsessed” with Spears. “I love her, she’s one of my favorite artists and I’ve seen all five shows she’s done in Vegas,” said Cardinelli, who is 30 and has been a Spears fan for about a decade. Rivera is another who was “dragged” to the show. “I like her, but not as much as he does,” he said, shrugging.

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The only moment when Spears might have been singing, and it’s iffy, was during the ballad, “Every Time.” But it was so hard to tell, as she was hanging above the stage on a hook-shaped seat under a big red-and-gold umbrella. That was as close to real as Spears got. The show ended promptly just before 11 p.m., and there would be no encores. No matter. The crowd was happy to file out of the arena at the appointed time.

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