Britney Hits the Road

updated 03/16/2009 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 03/16/2009 AT 01:00 AM EDT

She has been rehearsing for months, and on March 2 Britney Spears finally got to flaunt the results of her hard work. At a dress rehearsal at the New Orleans Arena in her home state of Louisiana, the singer wowed the crowd of diehard fans on the eve of her Circus tour kickoff. "She killed it," says a concertgoer. "Her body looked amazing. It's an incredible production."

It was a triumphant start to what Spears, 27, hopes will be her long-awaited, much-discussed comeback. "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."

The desire to escape may be intense for Spears. In a Feb. 23 hearing regarding a restraining order against her ex-manager Sam Lutfi (see box), it was clear her father still has a tight rein on her life since her two forced hospitalizations in 2008. Even the use of her own private cell phone is forbidden. During the hearing Jamie testified that his daughter's security team recently confiscated a phone from her—and that Britney admitted it had been allegedly passed along to her by Lutfi and her former boyfriend, paparazzo Adnan Ghalib. (Lutfi denies violating the order.)

The isolation could be taking a toll: Although Spears was visibly delighted to touch down in McComb, Miss., on Feb. 27 en route to her hometown of Kentwood, when the singer—who traveled with an entourage including sons Preston, 3, and Jayden, 2—was greeted by her parents, she was frosty toward Jamie, avoiding eye contact with him.

Still, "she was in good spirits," says a source. "She looked like her old self." As the nearly sold-out Circus tour gets underway, that's exactly who ticket buyers are expecting to see. "I've got to believe she's ready and will do a professional show," says Gary Bongiovanni, editor-in-chief of concert-trade magazine Pollstar. "If she doesn't, it's over." That kind of pressure concerns many close to the singer. "[They're] worried this might be too much," says a family friend. "It wasn't that long ago that she was falling apart."

Judging from her March 2 outing, Spears is determined to prove she's still got what it takes. She also has her two biggest fans for moral support: Preston and Jayden will accompany her during much of the tour. "Having the boys with her will make all the difference," says a source. "They're the reason she can do this."

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