Team Britney/Splash News Online
03/03/2009 at 11:00 PM EST
descended from the New Orleans Arena ceiling and back into fans' hearts Tuesday night, restarting her career after years of tabloid tumult with a bump-and-grind performance on a Big Top stage.
"Ahhh Britney!" gushed one concert-goer via a Twitter message posted on Spears's Web site
, which live-blogged the show in words and cell-phone photos.
As the pop star launched her first tour in five years, the 16-song set began with Spears, 27, being lowered from the rafters in a cage and breaking into the single "Circus," followed by "Piece of Me" and "Radar" with stripper-pole dancing.
"Oh my god, she looks amazing," said Joshua Matassa, 23, from New Orleans. "And the show's a spectacle – it really looks like a three-ring circus."
Later, fire shot out of the middle of the stage during "Slave," and the nearly sold-out 19,000-seat arena broke out into an explosion of screams as Spears performed "Toxic" and "Baby One More Time" back-to-back.
To cap off the show, pyrotechnics made firey rain sprinkle down on Spears and her dance crew as they finished performing "Womanizer."
"Thank you so much," said Spears as she blew a kiss to the crowd. "You have a good night."
The performance marked a dramatic return to form for Spears, who's been rehearsing for the 32-city tour, and placed aside – for now – the issues that derailed her personal and professional lives: the messy divorce from Kevin Federline
, losing custody of her children, and the self-acknowledged breakdown that followed.
Instead, Tuesday was a night of celebration and a chance for Spears, who hails from Kentwood, about 100 miles away, to bask in the glow of hometown fans.
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