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Earlier in the tour.

last night's gig

Spears’s Tears: Britney Briefly Sheds the Mask at MSG Show

Well, she looked good. And last night at Madison Square Garden, Britney Spears proved that she can at least nail the spectacle key to big arena shows. The first of her circus-themed tour’s three nights in New York City kicked off with gymnasts, hot, shirtless boys with nunchakus, and an amazing, legless woman on a trampoline. (Technically the show started with Kristina DeBarge and Jordin Sparks, but judging from all the empty seats early on, few noticed.) Perez Hilton, dressed as Queen Elizabeth I, introduced Britney via video (the ringleader then marched out in a purple leotard and shot Queen Perez with a crossbow). Brit herself descended from the ceiling on a sparkling platform, brandishing a whip and wearing a gold-and-white bustier — oh, and also singing “Circus.” From there it was pole dancing in a lion’s cage to “Piece of Me,” playing wack-a-mole with her dancers’ heads to “If U Seek Amy,” appearing as a genie for “In the Zone,” and playing naughty state trooper for a crowd-pleasing encore of “Womanizer.”

What Spears did, in the end, was show up. And even the chorus of gay boys heard singing her early work on the Seventh Avenue sidewalk probably would’ve agreed that it wasn’t enough. The show ran like a machine; at one point a clock appeared on the video screen, counting down the minutes until the “Circus.” Messy Britney would have missed her cue, but what descended from the ceiling instead, right on time, was a hardworking, nicely toned, seemingly medicated version of the girl we once knew. “She doesn’t dance much, does she? It’s all hands and feet — and that,” a girl next to us said, as Spears lifted her shoulders up and down. “She’s done that, like, twenty times.” Said another: “She dances like her shoes hurt.” (The unsurprising evidence that Brit was lip-synching came when she mouthed several bits of “Piece of Me” during an instrumental break.)

But not everything was so controlled. Spears spoke to the crowd exactly three times: “What’s up, New York?”; “Have a great night”; and finally, “I’m going to do a ballad. It’s called ‘Everytime.’” Then, for the first and only time, she actually sang. It was good. Really good. As the crowd sang back, Spears began to cry, and, for a moment, let us see the person beneath the spectacle.

Photo: WireImage