When Britney Spears takes the stage at the New Orleans Arena on March 3 – the opening night of her Circus tour – the stakes will never be higher.
After more than two years of personal drama, the tour will either make or break the professional comeback she began last fall.
According to sources, Spears, 27, who left Friday for Louisiana, has been hard at work preparing for the show, which will feature her signature sexy dance moves, a stage filled with three circus rings, and magic tricks.
"She's pretty determined," a friend tells PEOPLE. "She missed singing and performing and the freedom of that. It gives her an escape and it's what she loves to do, so she's definitely thankful to be doing that again."
Redeeming HerselfThough the pop star seemed to be back in old Britney form when she sang "Womanizer" on Good Morning America in December, the concert will be her biggest performance since her disastrous, out-of-shape appearance at the 2007 MTV Video Music Awards.
"I've got to believe she's ready and will do a professional show," Gary Bongiovanni, editor-in-chief of the concert trade magazine Pollstar, says. "If she doesn't, it's over."
Spears's last tour, in 2004, was canceled after the singer injured her knee during a video shoot. (She spent her newfound free time with then-boyfriend Kevin Federline; they were engaged that summer.) So far, the buzz for the upcoming 31-city outing is strong.
"In general, the tickets have sold very well. Some shows are already sold out," Bongiovanni says. "Obviously, it means there is significant fan interest in seeing her do her live show. That fact that she's been off the scene for a while helps with the pent-up demand."
Lingering IssuesOf course, some interest may stem from the sideshow that has been her personal life. On Wednesday, her father, Jamie, was granted an extension on a restraining order against his daughter's ex-manager Sam Lutfi. (Jamie holds indefinite legal control over her life following her two forced hospitalizations in January 2008.)
In a hearing on Monday, Jamie testified that prior to his stepping in, Britney's life "was pretty well a disaster. She had nothing going on, just mostly [being] in the tabloids. [But now] weight-wise she's eating properly, she's very stable, making her meetings, taking care of her babies [Preston, 3, and Jayden, 2], doing things she's supposed to do," he said.
Jamie also testified that during her breakdown, Britney was "kind of wild" and "just very messed up."
Britney's current manager, Larry Rudolph, told PEOPLE in November that dancing and singing is what helped the singer get her life back on track. "She identifies with her career in a lot of ways and getting her career back is a great therapeutic thing for her," he explained.
Seconds the pal, "She's better when she puts her energy into that."
Still, legal experts say her father could remain in control for months or even years. She'll only regain her independence once she proves to the court – backed by doctors' opinions – that she can handle her own affairs.
Is She Ready?The pop star's friend worries the tour may be too much for the singer to handle, but notes that "it's what her team thought was best."
What will make the trip easier is that Federline is taking the couple's kids on the road so they can keep up their regular visitation schedule with Mom.
"Having the boys with her is going to make all the difference," says a source. "They are the reason she can do this."
Reporting by MIKE FLEEMAN, JENNIFER GARCIA, MARISA LAUDADIO and KEN LEE