By Shaunna Murphy
Updated June 21, 2011 at 05:42 PM EDT
Britney Spears
Credit: Splash News

As I walked through L.A.’s Staples Center for Britney Spears’ Femme Fatale tour last night, the lack of parochial-school uniforms, blonde wigs, and spandex jumpsuits—the sartorial choices of Britney fans of concerts past—had me worried.

The packs of twenty-something females—with some gay men and dutiful boyfriends mixed in—here to see Britney looked to be dressed for a night out in Vegas; certainly a far cry from Gaga’s wig-happy Little Monsters and the diehard Britney fans of yore.(Eleven years ago, some babysitting money, combined with an impassioned plea to my mother, earned this former teenybopper a ticket to her unforgettable “Oops!… I Did It Again” tour.)

Mere minutes after the the singer’s first sultry utterance of “It’s Britney, bitch,” it was obvious that my first instincts were very, very wrong. She opened with a sexed-up rendition of her single “Hold It Against Me”; singing from a Game of Thrones-esque iron chair while a gaggle of beefed up “hot cops” grinded against her.

Britney’s back, alright. And with her slim waist, her dangerously toned legs, and most importantly her engaged, wide-eyed smile, she looked happy to be there with us—the crucial element that has been missing from so many Britney shows of late.

The actual ‘storyline’ to Femme Fatale is pretty limited, and really only comes up on video montages during Spears’ many costume changes. Britney has a dangerous stalker who resents her for her femininity, her elusiveness, and most of all, her fame. Brit’s mission, as she’s chosen to accept it, is to bring this mother down like the sexy assassin the videos tell us she is.

The onscreen story didn’t really work, but the high-concept visual performances, combined with the aesthetically remarkable sets, more than made up for the less-than-stellar overall concept. Plus, we got to see Britney’s tour-toned body in sexy Barbarella costumes, so the woman-on-the-verge theme had its upsides.

The stage show included a permanently-moving runway and a revolving elevated platform, and the elaborate sets featured everything from giant speaker cabinets for “Big Fat Bass” to sparkly jail cells and cages for “Up N’ Down.” My personal favorite set piece was the Pepto-Bismol pink Barbie convertible that Brit and her dancers used to cruise down the stage and striptease over the very happy male audience member they picked to ride in the front seat.

Britney wisely stuck to tracks from her latest album (which her fans seem to have already memorized), with a few of the classics squeezed in to satisfy those of us who fear change. Of the newer songs, “How I Roll” and “I Wanna Go” were standouts, the former for its bubblegum fun and the latter for the uproarious fan participation on stage.

The main drawbacks to the show were Britney’s complete lack of verbal audience interaction (two utterances of “how you doin’, Los Angeles” do not count), and her obviously diminished dancing ability. People have come to expect and accept a heavy amount of lip-synching during a Britney show, but the loss of the remarkable dance ability she once had was a disappointment. Her very talented and freakishly limber dancers do their part, but Britney just doesn’t seem to have the energy to produce the moves that once earned her the reputation of a natural-born performer.

The empty, dead-eyed girl from that painful 2007 MTV Video Music Awards performance is long gone, but Spears spent much of last night’s concert perched above various set pieces and crooning on swings to avoid the undoubtedly difficult task of dancing the night away. Her decision to sing Madonna’s “Burning Up” atop a giant guitar, for example, was questionable.

Notable exceptions were the return to the original choreography for “I’m A Slave 4 U” (my favorite part of the night), and the show-making finale of “Till The World Ends,” which included everything from red light-up vests to an elevated Britney descending over her adoring fans in angel wings. And confetti, lots of confetti. Nicki Minaj joined Britney on stage for a truly jubilant performance, and our heroine seemed to be enjoying every moment.

Nicki herself brought as much fun and energy as she could to her budget-limited performance, developing a Femme Fatale theme of her own as her alter-ego Roman battled a villainous dancer wearing the Saw clown mask. The crowd reacted well to most of her set, particularly her encore of “Super Bass” and a visually and vocally impressive performance of “Moment 4 Lyfe.”

She did spend a lot of time singing offstage, and didn’t seem to do any live singing at all during some of her chopped-down songs, most noticeably in the completely pre-recorded “Monster.” The drawn-out fight sequences between Nicki and her dancers had the crowd passively checking their Twitters, but whenever she emerged from her spaceship in a new piece of alien bondage attire, the crowd went wild. She hasn’t quite mastered the ability to rap through an hour-long stage show, but the girl has an undeniably magnetic stage presence.

What do you think, readers? Are you willing to give Britney another shot, or are you saving your hard earned dollars for Taylor or Katy this summer?

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