“The play is memory. Being a memory play, it is dimly lighted, it is sentimental, it is not realistic. In memory everything seems to happen to music.”
A mere 72 years after Tennessee Williams coined the term “memory play” to describe The Glass Menagerie, Britney Spears unwittingly pays homage with Piece of Me, her newly reinvigorated Las Vegas residency. The show is designed to bring back memories — of Britney’s greatest hits, her show-stopping performances, her chart-topping records. Her real-time presence in the here and now is secondary.
Piece of Me debuted at the Planet Hollywood Resort & Casino in December 2013 to positive reviews and sold-out shows. Extravagant costumes and hordes of dancers made the show a spectacle worthy of Vegas, and the production did everything it could to obscure the fact that Britney’s no longer the high-kicking dancer she once was, but it didn’t quite tap into what made Spears so transfixing in the first place — churning out addictive pop hits and slaying choreography in her heyday like she was the second coming of Janet Jackson. A “Remixed, Reimagined, and Still Iconic” Piece of Me debuted on February 13 of this year, and for the first time, there’s a version of this show that does what a Britney show ought to do.
Perhaps because the barrage of images of a lifeless and robotic Britney was so ingrained into our minds during the years of her paparazzi meltdowns, head shaving, and being friends with Hollywood antihero Lindsay Lohan, it’s exciting to see her prancing, alive, and delivering all that she can. (And damn, can she still kill some floor work, like in the sexy, newly added number “Breathe on Me.”) Sure, she’s not not lip-synching, but the audience chanted her name just the same. We want her to return, to gild the spectacle of her triumph.
Spears pulls off multiple costume changes, manages to keep up with maybe 80 percent of the choreography, and even rides a fucking huge guitar while performing “I Love Rock ’N’ Roll.” As a kid, I was able to witness Britney’s Dream Within a Dream tour in Vegas (famously filmed for the Britney Spears Live from Las Vegas HBO special). That show was innovative and rich in showstoppers — full of pyrotechnics and people flying on wires, performing a rendition of “…Baby One More Time” in the pouring rain, and of course donning the iconic white Elvis suit — and Piece of Me is no different. Britney’s still putting on a helluva show, despite her 2004 knee injury. She’s upbeat and energetic and as cheeky as she ever was in her ostensible heyday. “I think it’s time for us to break the fucking ice,” she muses, then launches into “Break the Ice.” The climax of the evening is her descent from the ceiling dressed as an angel, before she launches into “Everytime.” She looks every bit the part of a celestially born pop star who’s basking in the glow of adoring fans, those that have been down for her since she first appeared in her schoolgirl uniform.
It all invokes a memory. It invokes sentiment. It’s set to the music that dominated all of your high school and college party playlists. It’s the natural evolution of Tennessee Williams’s greatest work. “Cameos” from Will.i.am and Iggy Azalea were more like visitations by ghosts on the wall, performing their bits in Britney’s songs as her dancers flocked about. There’s even a point in the show when her dancers strut to Missy Elliott songs, because at its core, Piece of Me is a party.
And the thing about a party is that the host is usually the reason you show up, but after a point, a good party doesn’t require its host. It can live on without her. The Britney that strutted across the stage in Vegas last weekend has been tasked with the formidable and perhaps impossible task of replicating who she was when she became everything to us nearly two decades ago. That Britney is gone, but the one that remains isn’t any lesser. Our love, our adoration, the fandom for all that she has been, for the nights of our lives that she has soundtracked — our memories — fill the gap.