On the scene: Britney Spears in Las Vegas -- let the 'Piece of Me' residency begin

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Image Credit: Denise Truscello

You can say a lot of things about Britney Spears — but you can’t say she doesn’t work, bitch.

Pulling off a 90-minute, 23-song tour de force is no easy task. And Spears, with the help of a bevy of fantastic backup dancers, fulfilled her promise to her fans at the opening of her Las Vegas residency at Planet Hollywood Friday night to “bring the cheese” — in a good way. To those hoping for some sort of schadenfreude disaster, you won’t find it here; Spears speeds through her hits and some new songs off her latest album, Britney Jean, with great energy, slick choreography, and about four different hairstyles, not to mention the seven costume changes.

The show owes more to Cirque du Soleil and her own ’90s-era videos than it does to Celine Dion, but will it be enough to draw a younger audience to Las Vegas for the next two years? The show opens as Britney descends to the stage from a huge sphere — the first of several high-flying stunts in the 90-minute performance — and launches into ‘Work B**ch,” with Spears clad in a sparkly nude bodysuit, reminiscent of her outfit in 2004’s “Toxic” music video. You can almost make out her six pack from the audience; that is to say, she looks amazing. It takes her a few songs to look completely comfortable on stage, but by the middle of “3” she’s given a brief shoutout to the crowd and gotten in sync, just in time to launch into “… Baby One More Time” and “Oops!… I Did It Again,” clad in black and donning a short brown wig, letting us know this was new Britney revisiting old Britney — we weren’t going to get a red leather body suit or the heart thump dance move tonight.

Fans have gotten a preview of the set list  already, and Spears mainly stuck to the script. The highlights included a Tarzan-like “Toxic,” with Britney swinging down from a huge tree on stage and opening the number without a backing track, a carnival atmosphere for “Circus,” which mimicked the original video for the song but brought it to life with a ring of fire on stage and funhouse video mirrors that looked like something out of Harry Potter, and the major dance number “Scream & Shout,” Britney’s collaboration with will.i.am, featuring dancers in glow-in-the-dark gear running in hamster wheels while a not-quite-hologram video of will.i.am backed them up.

While everyone in the house is on their feet for most of the show, those in the cheap seats in the club-like 4,600 seat venue may have been disappointed, as there is no jumbotron showing shots of the action on stage and Spears’ use of the platform running into the audience is limited. Britney’s brief interactions with the crowd many consisted of thank yous and “Vegas rocks!” Unless you’re Mario Lopez. From watching the I am Britney Jean documentary on E! last week, the true fans already knew there was a chance for one lucky fan to be brought up on stage during “Freak Show.” In Friday’s show, the lucky guy was Lopez, who was a great sport about the whole thing, crawling on all fours while a leather-clad Britney led him around the stage, and freestyle dancing in front of the celeb-filled crowd in the pit, which included Miley Cyrus and Katy Perry.

But while it’s fun, the show is far from perfect. The video interstitial showing her videos from the past two decades is a missed opportunity to show us some behind-the-scenes footage or a personal story from Britney herself. Beyond showing her various eras, the show doesn’t have an overarching theme that sticks with you, and while the tricks are cool to see, they seem a little slapped together and don’t flow smoothly. And then there’s the is-she-or-isn’t-she lip syncing.

But we’re not here to see Maria Callas. We’re here to see a pop star put on a choreographed, rehearsed-down-to-the-second stage show, and the best part is the dancing.  Like Madonna before her, Britney is smart to make stars out of her dancers, and they nearly steal the show in parts. Yes, Britney almost too clearly uses some kind of vocal track, but there are certainly enough moments in the show — as she floats down to the stage with angel wings on in “Everytime,” the ballad “Perfume” from the new album, or the slow, almost acoustic opening to “Toxic” — where her true voice comes through.

I’d have loved to have seen more of this, not because she’s the best singer on the planet, but because it was the most connected to her as an artist that one can feel from the audience. It was hard to get a sense of who Britney is in this retrospective of her career. Unlike Lady Gaga or Madonna, or even Rihanna who take themes to the extreme on stage, Britney’s show is not going to offend anyone. Want some light S&M? She’s got that. Or a couple curse words? They are right there in the headlining number. All of it is tasty and light but it doesn’t challenge the audience and is pretty family-friendly, leaving me wondering — what does Britney stand for? And is the fact that we don’t know or don’t care part of the reason we love her?

If you’re a huge Britney Spears fan, you’re going to want to make the trip to Vegas over the course of her two-year stint, as it’s a unique opportunity to see a mega star in a small-ish venue that feels far more like a club than the Staples Center. And with the music alternatives on the Strip being Shania Twain and Celine Dion, the time seems right for Britney to make a big play for the Vegas audience — and maybe even make some new fans along the way.

Set List:
Work Bitch
Womanizer
3
Everytime
…Baby One More Time
Oops!…I Did It Again
Me Against The Music
Gimme More
Break the Ice
Piece of Me
Scream & Shout
Boys
Perfume
I’m a Slave 4 U
Freak Show
Do Somethin’
Circus
I Wanna Go
Lucky
Toxic
Stronger
(You Drive Me) Crazy
Till The World Ends

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