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Aftermath: Britney Spears at Toyota Center

Britney Spears and her three-ring "Circus" came to Houston Monday night, and I unashamedly followed throngs of twenty- and thirtysomethings into Toyota Center to catch a glimpse of the comeback girl we love to pick apart, then pick back up again.

We'll skip right on over openers the Pussycat Dolls, since that's why I did, preferring to loosen up at The Grove until the big act began. Instead, we watched from the upstairs patio as fans - an impressive crowd of sequins and top hats - streamed into the arena.

As we headed over, handed over our tickets and elbowed up to the bar, it was hard to miss the exchanges between gal-pals speculating whether Brit would lip-synch - overwhelming, and correct, answer: yes - and even more difficult to notice the lack of tweens and teens among us. Britney has birthed two kids and divorced two men, after all. She's a grown-up, and her fans have aged right alongside her.

Inside, both the attire and the demographics were a hodgepodge. One fan channeled Breakout Britney in a pink plaid miniskirt, fishnets, pigtails and the requisite white blouse tied above the navel. A flashy guy opted for, oddly, KISS-inspired face paint to pair with his pale pink fedora, circa sexy Snake Charmer Brit-Brit. And a "cool mom" escorted three tweens, each dressed in cut-off denim skirt, leggings and too-tight tees a la Barefoot Brit who cruised service-station restrooms and wielded an umbrella as a weapon. We made it to our seats just in time to see the circus performers warming up the crowd for the big show. Preferring to avoid adding cries from PETA to her long list of transgressions in the media, Britney's pre-show act included only human performers, but the show was spectacular nonetheless. Alternating between the two round stages adjacent to the main stage, trapeze artists joined jugglers and contortionists. Acrobats teetered on long skinny boards - with no nets! - and one woman caught and simultaneously swung 15 large gold rings around her hips. The crowd was wild. Brit deserved no less of a lead-in. After celebrity blogger Perez Hilton, dressed in Elizabethean drag that exposed his chest hair, welcomed us by video screen to the main event - a "freak show," he termed it - it was clear the pop diva was about to take stage, I expected excited cheers to melt into uncontrolled shrieks and tears from the charged-up crowd around us. But I didn't see anyone embarrassing themselves, not even the under-18s. And it hit me: Britney has fallen. She's shown she's human. So we root for her and revel being in her presence, it's with the understanding she's one of us. And we're able to compose ourselves. Finally Miss Spears appeared in dramatic fashion from overhead, wearing a circus conductor uniform (sans the pants) bearing a whip and a devilish smile. All platinum blonde hair and energy - she didn't stop all night, dazzling us completely. The first song was the tour title, and from there, she made her way through a dizzying series of costume changes, a fleet of backup dancers, and as much entertainment value as you can pack into just under two hours. There was fire, smoke and mirrors. Beds and cages. Swords and a stripper pole. Even slower numbers like "Everytime" were punched up, with Britney perched cross-legged in the handle of a giant suspended umbrella. She churned out song after song, with virtually no interaction with the audience save one rapturously received "What's up, Houston?" Instead of banter, there was a nod to Bollywood, and an odd pre-filmed "duet" with Marilyn Manson. There were plenty of circus-inspired theatrics, like when Britney stepped into a box to be cut in half, only to emerge wearing a pink boa.

Girls twisted themselves in massive drapes hanging from the sky and boys rode bikes across stage in white caps. Plenty of the garb was blatant S&M, and there were even a few hot pink wigs. And Britney grabbed her crotch. Twice.

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If it was all to distract us from a body that's not quite in top form and moves that don't mimic the talent of the toned post-Disney pop star, it worked. No one gave a damn that she didn't sing one single lyric on her own. And as if to thank us for our loyal support, after all the years and the antics, she rounded off the performance with classics like "...Baby One More Time."

Before we begged for the encore ("Womanizer"), a montage of music-video clips, spliced with famous television moments like the Madonna Kiss, made us smile and remember. Maybe her life has played out more like a freak show than a circus act at times, but she's our freak.

And she's back, y'all.

[Note: check out some pictures of Britney bumming around Midtown yesterday here.]

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