Tuesday, Dec. 31, 2013 | 12:19 p.m.
At a loss to comprehend the visceral connection, or absence thereof, between Britney Spears and her legions of fans, I was nudged and told to check out a little girl standing in the aisle of Planet Hollywood’s Axis Theater.
She was likely 10 years old, a little blond girl, wearing capri jeans, sequined sneakers and a “Britney: Piece of Me” T-shirt. As the sounds of the song “I Wanna Go” blared through the jammed, renovated theater, this little girl swayed and mouthed the words as effectively as Spears herself. She was rapt, her eyes fixed intently, even unblinking, on the star onstage.
That is the Spears effect, played out Monday night in her third Las Vegas performance. The 32-year-old pop superstar continues to hold sway over her fans, and there are millions of ’em around the world who have followed her career since she wasn’t much older than that little girl. This appeal spans at least two generations — Spears’ own and one that is a step younger.
Spears has issued a high volume of hits and served as the centerpiece of many eye-catching videos. She is a hero to millions of fans, many of them who are little girls now or who were kids when she first broke through with such numbingly effective dance hits as “Baby One More Time” and “Oops!…I Did it Again,” music that is great to dance to, and also by which to operate a StairMaster at LVAC.
What is becoming clear, even just three shows into Spears’ 94-show run at Axis Theater, is her devotees are happy to simply ignore some requirements typically required for a topnotch live production. Spears is not singing consistently live in this performance, and nobody could have honestly expected her to be singing in her own voice throughout this 95-minute boogiefest.
The giveaways are constant. Even the best-conditioned entertainers would struggle to maintain a consistent vocal balance while quickstepping down a half-spiral staircase, but in this show Spears performs that move as the sound of her voice soars unwaveringly across the theater. She spins, hops, even hits the floor, and the vocals are spot on (a YouTube clip of what Spears’ voice actually sounds like through her isolated microphone feed during her 2009 “Circus” tour appearance has been passed around by entertainers in Vegas for years, and the result is pretty awful).
To be fair, Spears is not the first Las Vegas artist to lean on technology to boost, or even supplant, live vocals. But the Spears “Piece of Me” spectacle is an uncommonly large production, and the vocal support (the music from the five-piece band, too, seems boosted by tracks) is more apparent than in most any other show being staged in Vegas.
Someone who is both an entertainer and an avid Spears fan recently explained to me that it was preferable for Spears to look and sound great onstage, even with heavy technological support, than to produce a substandard, purely live performance. Given that rationale, Spears’ team has dutifully delivered on the expectations of those who are most likely to buy tickets to her show. And you can’t fault them for that, given the generosity of what is staged.
What the production can offer, still, is a pretty satisfying experience if you enjoy an unbroken medley of familiar songs, some terrific dancing by the 14-member team from the funky Australian dance company The Squared Division and a lavish complement of stage scenery, theatrics, production value — cool stuff, for lack of a better term.
Spears inhabits a towering, winged angel costume in “Everytime” surrounded by a team of dancers dressed in bat-like black costumes. A pair of Cirque-like spinning wheels (reminding of the Wheel of Death, except the neon-costumed artists run only inside, and not atop, the contraption) are rolled out for “Scream & Shout.” “I Wanna Go” is dazzling, with images of Spears beaming out from video screens. In “Toxic” she bursts from the biggest tree to be used in a Strip show since “Michael Jackson Immortal” borrowed from Jackson’s Giving Tree. Alternately, she dances inside a ring of fire and settles into a fountain of water, announcing afterward, “I got a little wet!”
Monday’s show brought out another famous audience plant — on opening night, it was Mario Lopez — in Lance Bass from ’N Sync, for “Freakshow.” Spears gave him a slight spanking with a riding crop before signing a T-shirt, reinforcing her widespread popularity among fellow celebs (Nicky and Paris Hilton and Nsim Pedrad from "Saturday Night Live" also were reportedly in Monday’s audience).
But throughout, you still keep looking for that personal, emotional link between Spears and her fans. Several times during the show, I was caught glancing at the screens flanking the beautifully gussied-up Axis Theater, instinctively trying to find the face behind all this activity. But Spears is never shown close-up. Aside from some rote stage banter, like, “Vegas! What’s Up! It’s awesome to be here tonight!” there is no chitchat coming from the star of the show.
Not that we’re looking for a Springsteen-esque delving into a five-minute monologue about what it’s like to grow up in New Jersey, but something more than a couple dozen words would add some measure of human warmth from the woman causing all this fuss.
Spears would do well to learn from the woman who so effectively embraces the audience at the Colosseum at Caesars, Celine Dion, who not only sings like an angel, but tell us something about who she is. Celine talks a lot about her upbringing, her family and how she came to play Vegas.
As it is, the “Piece of Me” residency is going to depend largely on Spears’ deep well of unwavering fans, and there are many. They are uncommonly forgiving, extraordinarily loyal and — like that little girl in the sequined shoes — certain to return.