'Jenny's House of Joy' review: Entire cast having a rootin' tootin' good time at The Dio
Courtesy of Michele Anliker Photography
In what could be described as a spiritual cousin to “The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas,” The Dio’s current production of “Jenny’s House of Joy” has plenty of laughter, crude humor, and good ole’ fashioned Southern values. Written by Norm Foster and directed by Dio co-founder Steve DeBruyne, “Jenny’s House of Joy” goes through quite a transformation from where it starts, eventually blossoming into a refreshing statement on female empowerment and sex positivty while also being unafraid of shying away from its roots. This is about the world’s oldest profession, so the innuendos and euphemisms go down smoother than The Dio’s signature fried chicken (which is still delicious by the way). As do the laughs.
Emboldened by an electric all-female ensemble who relish every line of dialogue, “Jenny’s House of Joy” takes place in Baxter Springs, Kansas 1871 where the President is Ulysses S. Grant, perforated toilet paper proves all the rage and hot dogs are booming. It’s the perfect location for Jenny’s house considering Baxter Springs provides a major gateway into the northern markets of Kansas City for lonely Texas cattlemen peddling beef. But in “Jenny’s House of Joy” you’ll only hear about the cattlemen and never see them, an interesting direction Foster’s script employs. Instead, the show stays focused on the quartet of women who give the brothel its satisfactory reputation.
There’s ringleader Jenny (Elizabeth Mitchell) and her long tenured employees, the crass alcoholic Frances (Diane Hill) and ditzy blonde Anita (Annika Anderson) who easily get the show buzzing with their frank conversations, sarcastic attitudes, and hankering for whiskey. It only takes about five minutes to feel like we’ve known them our entire life, a testament to the actress’ portrayal and swift comedic delivery. Sure, Foster’s script might lean heavily on the male appendage jokes during the introductory stretch, but it's all within the realm of plausibility when you realize what era The Dio transports us to. Matt Tomich's easy-on-the-eyes set design and Norma Polk’s lush period costumes don’t hurt either as they continue cementing themselves as one of the most consistent creative duo’s working in the Michigan regional theater circuit.
Though a show about Jenny, Frances and Anita would be enough to sustain its own sitcom (the banter among them is top-tier comedy) their dynamic is upended with the arrival of Natalie (Molly Cunningham) an innocent housewife on the run from her abusive husband who rolled into town after being swindled by a con man. Despite a disdain for cursing and using words like “making love,” Natalie’s overall determination to thrive puts Jenny’s skepticism at ease and within weeks becomes her top grossing gal and, much to the amazement of everyone, bags a record setting eight men in one night,
Each character goes through an evolutionary change; weather it’s Frances becoming more in-tuned with her emotional wellbeing; Anita’s educational aspirations, or Natalie’s graduation from viriglity to full-blown, tough-as-nails brothel business woman, “Jenny’s House of Joy” never treats these characters as second class citizens. And as the political and cultural conversation around sex work is starting to shift, The Dio’s production, ironically, feels like its coming at an opportune moment and these impactful performances speak volumes.
My only beef with “Jenny’s House of Joy,” and not because of the performer, is a supporting character named Clara (played here by Amy Schumacher), a disgruntled wife angry with her husband’s late night rendezvous at Jenny’s and someone who Foster never seems to get an accurate handle on. She’s only in two scenes, but credit to Schumacher (who also assistant directed) for making the most of an underwritten role that’s tasked with adding tension, drama, and comedic relief in 15 minutes of stage time. For a show emboldened with fleshed out female personalities, Clara’s slight inclusion caught me off-guard. It makes you wish Schumacher had more to chew on.
Nevertheless, “Jenny’s House of Joy” finds the sweet spot and not only because of the scrumptions peach crumble served during intermission (though it certainly helps) but the camaraderie of these performers is infectious. In an industry dominated by shows fixated on the male gaze and oversexulation of women, here’s a production that takes what’s usually regarded as a degrading profession, spins it around, takes ownership, and creates something more than an eye-rolling punchline. Those inside “Jenny’s House of Joy” are taking charge of their own story and I was thrilled to be along for the ride. Saddle up!
THE DIO’S production of JENNY’S HOUSE OF JOY continues through February 27th. Your ticket purchase includes a three course dinner and non-alcoholic beverage. Click here for reservations.