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Younger crowd seems fine with business as usual from Britney

If these are the songs you grew up with, and Britney Spears is an emotional touchstone in your life?

Welcome to Las Vegas!

The actual debut of Spears’ “Piece Of Me” showcase on Friday didn’t change the fact that the story behind the show — where it’s taking place and why — is still more interesting than the show itself.

Those who follow Las Vegas trends, such as Caesars Entertainment signing the pop superstar in a two-year play for younger ticket-buyers, are probably the same people old enough to brood about whether she’s singing live or lip-syncing.

The excited fans at Friday’s kickoff didn’t much care. And if newcomers found it to be a ritualized, hit-your-mark dance show with no real emotional connection, they might have forgotten the audience brought that connection into Planet Hollywood’s theater with them.

Maybe Britters and her fans understand each other well enough by now to get by with a few brief verbal exchanges, such as “Isn’t this theater beautiful?”

They hear her songs more on dance floors than in concert halls. So it didn’t seem odd that neither the vocals nor the music resonated with a real live presence that could be sourced back to the human hands of the band in the background.

This new, coveted demographic of ticket buyers seemed fine with what they’ve come to know as business as usual from Touring Britney: A densely packed, intricately choreographed dance-along fronted by their favorite Barbie doll. A blank canvas to display whatever you want it to read: fantasy girl, courageous working mom, gay-camp icon.

If “Piece of Me” has little in the way of imagination or new ideas, it at least musters up enough visual flair to sit amid the Cirque du Soleil spectaculars on the Strip.

The pop princess arrived (and departed) in a sphere that looked like those used by your “Globe of Death” motorcycle daredevils. “Everytime” delivered her to the stage in outsized angel wings. Johnny Cash never had a real “Ring of Fire,” but Britney stands inside one for “Circus.”

And just when you thought the action was descending into repetition, out rolls a giant tree that lets Britters go Queen of the Jungle, swinging down from the highest branch for “Toxic.”

Director Baz Halpin seems almost too aware of his Cirque du Soleil surroundings. The tree makes you remember the Michael Jackson tribute “The Immortal,” and a snow illusion — with both projected and confetti snowflakes — is similar to one in the newer Jackson tribute “One.”

The poofy pantaloons on the male dancers in “Oops!… I Did It Again” seem a lot like those in “Le Reve.” The Cirque-like references go on, from the masked dancers in the opening numbers to other dancers spreading kite-like “wings.”

But Cirque and pop music have been cross-bred at least since Paula Abdul hired away a Cirque flying man in the early ’90s. And if you want to talk about male dancers making Spears into a vertical plank they can rotate above their extended arms, that may be a move Britney Jean’s parents saw in an Ann-Margret show.

The reference points are only familiar if you are old enough to catch them.

For those who came of age in the 2000s, Spears is their go-to girl for pop that shapes the edgier rhythms of electronica into sing-along anthems, from the opening “Work Bitch” to the closer, “Till the World Ends” 80 minutes later.

It was clear the 32-year-old has been training hard to work that famous midriff in bedazzled halter tops and keep up with 14 dancers. What is less clear is why an essentially visual performer wasn’t seen in any live camera closeups on the video that filled the back screen and even the side walls of the theater.

Even curtained down to about 5,000 seats, the old Aladdin concert hall is a cavernous place where those behind the sound board aren’t really going to see faces. While it was fun to see a stylized animation of Will.i.am fill the back wall for “Scream &Shout,” it made it all the weirder to never see the star attraction.

Without the ability to study her face, most fans had to settle for a few moments that brought the star a little closer, on a thrust stage built out into a new VIP seating area, and for wigs that tried her out in short hair and as a brunette.

One of those looks came in the kinky-fun sequence that combined “I’m A Slave 4 U” and “Freakshow” into a black-and-white orgy of water cannons and latex (Spears’ opening night “victim” from the audience was TV host Mario Lopez).

“I Wanna Go” featured six wheeled-on mirrors, each displaying video of the star, an example of what the show could have been with less pastiche and more real ideas.

As for the singing issue? Skeptics go down a false road when they pose the choice as live versus lip-sync. The answer seems to be a blend of the two.

The two songs that cleared the stage of dancers to hone in on the audio — “Perfume” and “Lucky” — sounded like live vocals run through processors to give them that same Auto-Tuney echo of the club cuts.

But, the star tells us in “Circus,” there are guys “that can hang with me” and others who “are scared,” so “come prepared.”

Remember what kind of party this is. If you come uninvited, don’t be disappointed.

Contact reporter Mike Weatherford at mweatherford@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0288.

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