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'Color Purple' comes straight from the heart

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NEW YORK -- Two very different women are thrown together by circumstance and, against all odds, form a friendship that empowers both of them.

Sound like the basis of a Broadway hit? It is: Wicked has been playing to packed houses for more than two years. But now it has a plucky little sister in The Color Purple (*** out of four), which opened Thursday at the Broadway Theatre.

As anyone who saw the 1985 film based on the Alice Walker novel of the same name knows, the female bonding in Purple extends beyond a pair of buddies. There are, for starters, Celie and Nettie, adoring siblings torn apart when their father, after raping Celie, forces her to marry a man who abuses her.

But as much as this musical adaptation of Purple details Celie's long years of suffering and her yearning for a sister whose very survival she begins to doubt, it also celebrates the inspiring relationships and resources of faith and self-love she manages to cultivate.

If your blood-sugar level is starting to creep up, be forewarned: Purple can be sappy stuff. But it's the kind of sap that seems to come from a pure heart instead of a cynical desire to exploit audiences' emotions with a lot of sentimental bells and whistles.

This socially and spiritually conscious Purple lays claim to a varied tradition in musical theater, dating from shows such as Wicked and Caroline, or Change back to some of the classics of Jerome Kern and Rodgers and Hammerstein, who broke ground in dealing with issues such as domestic violence and racism.

That's not to say Purple is as complex or transcendent as, say, Carousel, or Caroline for that matter. Still, it's often moving and well-served by a cast that ably sings soul, jazz, gospel and blues.

LaChanze's Celie is a marvel, aging from an awkward 14 to 54 without letting us doubt a word or breath. Elisabeth Withers-Mendes and Felicia P. Fields also stand out as two sassy alpha females who befriend her, one becoming a sort of soul mate.

All three women figure into the final scene, which is about as surprising as cake after a birthday dinner. Still, if you leave the theater with dry eyes ... well, I guess you're not as much of a sucker for sap as I am.

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