A question hovers over the new Oprah-produced musical adaptation of The Color Purple, Alice Walker's harrowing feminist epic of hard-bought emancipation: Can a story about rape, incest, race hate, domestic violence, and clandestine lesbianism really be transformed into an Oliver!-esque Broadway melodrama-ganza? After nearly three hours, the answer comes back: Yes. But this isn't it.
The fault certainly doesn't lie with the cast. As Celie, a child bride-turned-childlike wife, LaChanze (Once on This Island) effectively blots out any persistent memories of Whoopi Goldberg in Steven Spielberg's 1985 film. But where Goldberg's performance was set on a low simmer, this Celie is clearly bottling a snarl. (At times, her wind-bent posture takes on a Quasimodo-ish stiffness.) Brandon Victor Dixon (as conflicted beta male Harpo) and Krisha Marcano (the impetuous Squeak) both display more natural charm than the show can harness. And as the stout, fearless amazon Sofia (the role that earned Oprah an Oscar nod), Broadway newcomer Felicia P. Fields steals scenes effortlessly. Come on: She's got a song called ''Hell No!'' It's almost too easy.
Actually, it is too easy. The show operates below the reading level of its producer's book club and draws such massive energy off its cast, you forget how thin it is, lyrically and melodically until the ballads start slogging through their pop paces. Purple's tunes were banged out by three journeyman songwriters whose collective credits could be set to a cola jingle. Apart from a choral trio cleverly reminiscent of The Music Man, the score lurches aimlessly from gospel-goosed pastiche to Oscar-orchestra incidental. ''Incidental'' also sums up Marsha ('night, Mother) Norman's book, a collection of you-go-girl moments that never locates a theme larger than...you go, girl! Meanwhile, Walker's pungent sexuality and earthy spirituality get pruned. You go, girl! But where? That seems to be a question left for another, better musical.