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MUSIC REVIEW

Spears dresses up and plays pretend

Reprinted from late editions of yesterday's Globe.

MANCHESTER, N.H. -- Lip-synching? Check. Lavish fantasy-themed production? Yawn. Simulated sex? Give me a break.

It's a terrible thing for a critic to admit, but there's nothing left to say. Everything regarding Britney Spears's mysteriously brilliant career has been covered, and all she brought to the Verizon Wireless Arena in Manchester Tuesday night was more of it.

Spears's Onyx Hotel tour, in support of her latest album, "In the Zone," is a spectacle of the first order. Blinking towers, garish lights, and flashing stairs set the stage for a high-tech variation on a "Hotel California" theme. Once you check in you can't check out, we were informed via videotape early on, and "trapped" is the operative term here.

Spears was wheeled in on top of a glorified luggage cart, strapped into a black vinyl catsuit, mouthing the words to "Toxic." She happily skipped off 90 minutes later, looking for all the world as if she'd been sprung, to "Me Against the Music." In between, like the long-suffering star of a show that just won't close, Spears shimmied, squirmed, stroked, and pretended to sing her way through a series of fantasies (Lounge Singer Britney, Garden Nymph Britney) brought to cheesy and sinister life within the hotel's magical walls.

Spears has postponed three shows in the last couple of weeks because of a leg injury, and she phoned in her normally energetic choreography, tossing her hair and making angular shapes with her arms rather than actually dancing, a task left to eight talented, beautifully costumed professionals without whom one wonders exactly what form the entertainment might have taken.

That's not to say there weren't any impressive musical moments. Lounge Singer Britney transformed ". . . Baby One More Time" and "Oops! I Did It Again" into jazzy, vintage-style showstoppers. It was, in fact, brilliant, and it was a tidy way of relegating those pesky early hits to oldie status.

The briskly paced set emphasized edgier newer material: "Showdown," "Overprotected," "I'm a Slave 4 U," "Shadow." But those songs were effectively relegated to the Britney remainder bin once the soft-core portion of the back-loaded production began. "Touch of My Hand" featured Britney in a sparkly, flesh-colored bodysuit that made her appear as if she were dressed in, well, sparkles. She writhed in a plexiglass bath while a man in boots and briefs rubbed himself on a bed below her. Then the whole gang came out for "Breathe on Me," which featured various combinations of men and women simulating every sort of sex act. At this point, there's nowhere to go but down.

With the aid of a genuinely creepy MC who passed gas, humiliated audience members, and resembled nothing so much as the child of Boy George and the Penguin, the Onyx Hotel felt more like a night terror than a dream.

Smoky-throated singer Kelis performed a selection of dour rap-rock, preceded by snotty, nubile newcomer Skye Sweetnam, carefully torn and artfully safety-pinned, who opened with a blessedly brief set of corporate punk-pop.

Joan Anderman can be reached at anderman@globe.com.

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