Thursday, January 8, 2015


Dinner and a Movie

Annie Way to Get to Henry’s End

By Steve Herte 

It’s amazing what things you can accomplish when you’re waiting for someone. On Tuesday, karaoke night, I was at table at 5:00 pm and Betty assured me she would be there “around” 6:00 pm. Drink in hand and occasionally conversing with various friends among the regulars I decided to start a “Bucket List.” I never considered doing it before and didn’t know what to include. Did what I wanted to do be possible or just what I would like to have happen? I came up with a short list, with the top five being to: 1. Sing on-stage with the Moody Blues, 2. Have dinner with Stephen King, 3. Ride the Orient Express, 4. Meet Sigourney Weaver, and 5. Be a taster on an Iron Chef show. Are they possible?

Betty arrived with no voice, a case of laryngitis, and to keep her from using her voice I gave her my pack of Post-Its for her to respond with. I knew it drove her crazy being that limited but I kept her laughing. The evening went well. New Year’s eve was exactly the way I wanted it this year, quiet. I’ve found that I don’t need the hoo-hah and noise every year and was already anticipating Friday night. Enjoy!

Annie (Sony Pictures, 2014) Director: Will Gluck. Writers: Will Gluck, Aline Brosh McKenna (s/p); Thomas Meehan (stage play book); Harold Gray (comic strip “Little Orphan Annie”). Cast: Jamie Foxx, Quvenzhane Wallis, Rose Byrne, Bobby Cannavale, Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaye, David Zayas, Cameron Diaz, Zoe Margaret Colletti, Nicolette Pierini, Eden Duncan-Smith, Amanda Troya, Dorian Missick, Tracie Thomas, Mike Birbiglia, & Stephanie Kurtzuba, Color, 118 minutes.

In 1977, the Broadway show “Annie” opened and ran for an amazing six years. It was a dark story of a comic strip character with a fright wig of flaming red (actually orange) hair and the perpetual red dress. The comic strip was unique in that none of the characters had pupils in their eyes, just whites. The early life for “Little Orphan” Annie was tough and the tale goes on to tell of her befriending a stray dog and saving it from the dogcatcher – naming the homely creature Sandy. Her only friends are the six other little girls who live with her under the tyranny of the besotted spinster, Miss Hannigan. Toward Christmastime, the wealthy “Daddy” Oliver Warbucks shows up to choose an orphan to have Christmas dinner with him. Annie is chosen and her life takes an upswing (except for the avaricious Miss Hannigan and her brother).

In 1982, the show was first made into a movie featuring Carol Burnett as Miss Hannigan, which alone lightened the mood of the story. But, unfortunately, Sandy was changed from an orange, shorthaired street dog to a mangy sheepdog mix and Annie was a little on the tubby side.

Who knew that the show that spawned thousands of starry-eyed screeching moppets destroying the song “Tomorrow” at the top of their lungs would evolve into the Annie produced this year? People who formerly ran screaming as soon as they heard “The sun’ll come out…” would peep out from their hiding places at the new sound of this superbly updated version.

Will Stacks (Foxx) – the Daddy Warbucks part – is a multi-billionaire who made his money in his communications/cell phone company. He’s running for public office against a more popular conservative white candidate and his right-hand man, Guy (Cannavale) will do anything to improve his chances, mainly because of what it will do for him). Grace Farrell (Byrne) is his right-hand woman and adviser and she plays an excellent “good conscience” to balance out the ruthless Guy.

Annie Bennet (Wallis) is the optimistic little girl who believes that her parents are still out there somewhere and will return – according to a note she holds near and dear – to an Italian restaurant called “Domani” (Italian for tomorrow). And so she waits on the corner across the street on cannoli night each week hoping they come back. She’s pretty much a free spirit and comes and goes as she wishes, using the fire escape to enter and leave Miss Charlene Hannigan’s (Diaz) apartment, where she lives with four other girls, Tessie (Colletti), Mia (Pierini), Isabella (Duncan-Smith), and Pepper (Troya). Already the Broadway show familiars are saying they didn’t know Annie had a last name or that Miss Hannigan had a first name. Each night, Tessie asks Annie to read the hopeful note from her parents and this develops into the song “Maybe.”

Since the song “Hard Knock Life” must be a part of the movie, a new character is introduced. Social Services Inspector (Birbiglia) is due to check up on Miss Hannigan’s five charges and she wakes them all up early, threatening no breakfast until the apartment is immaculate. The girls sing and play through the housework and all is ready for Charlene to flirt with the Inspector throughout his uncomfortable visit. The only place Miss Hannigan does not want inspected is her “medicine” cabinet. Annie knows this and asks to be allowed to go to the library while the bathroom is being checked. All it takes is the allusion to the infamous cabinet and Hannigan lets her go. Of course we know that Annie’s destination is not the library. She goes across the street to the bodega run by another new character, Lou (Zayas), who is deeply in love with Hannigan, and asks to borrow $53.58. He lets her “work” for the money changing the expiration dates on the milk and orange juice containers. Why does she need the money? She and the girls saw a piece of paper with their Social Security numbers on it when the Inspector arrived and Annie wants to get copy of her “records.”

She fills out the proper form and somehow gets a “guardian” signature on it and presents it to Mrs. Kovacevic (Kurtzuba) at the Child Welfare Bureau along with the money. The single page she gets back doesn’t tell her anymore than she already knows but it doesn’t dampen her spirits. She leaves singing “Tomorrow” on the streets of Harlem on the way home. Two boys chasing an orange-colored dog race by her tormenting the animal. She goes after them to try and stop them.

Meanwhile, Stacks’ campaign is not going well. He’s talked into doling out food at a Food Bank, which almost makes him go into a germaphobic fit. A homeless man challenges him to actually eat the mashed potatoes on his serving spoon. It’s disgusting and Stacks does a perfect “Danny Thomas” (spewing it out as if choking on it) and the act is caught on a smart phone and goes viral. Stacks decides to take a walk away from his advisers and, as he turns a corner he sees Annie run right into the path of an on-coming truck and grabs her to safety just in time. This also goes viral and his poll numbers soar. Guy suggests (recommends) he take Annie to lunch, which Stacks does, and the relationship (and press photos) develop into something much bigger. Annie moves into his penthouse “smart” apartment where everything is automated accompanied by Grace and Mrs. Kovacevic. The song “I Think I’m Gonna Like It Here” is sung by the trio.

As time goes by Annie’s irrepressible positive thinking brings her and Stacks closer. Her friends at Miss Hannigan’s also benefit from her wealthy acquaintance when she talks him into having them attend a movie premiere and party. Stacks even takes Annie on a helicopter ride over New York City and they perform a surprising duet on a new song, “The City’s Yours.” But, eventually Guy figures out that being with Annie will only take Stacks so far and he comes up with a scheme to take her out of the picture. Conning the willing Miss Hannigan into his confidence over booze at a night club he asks her to “find” two people to pose as Annie’s parents – he’ll fake the DNA tests – and have them drive her away for a little while and drop her back into “the system” when they’re tired of her.

Wait! That’s nothing like the original story!” you might say. I might have mentioned it was seriously updated. The music has a new funky beat and a lower key (so that the girls no longer screech their songs), which makes it eminently more attractive. There’s no Franklin Delano Roosevelt in this edition and no “We’d Like to Thank You Herbert Hoover” song. In fact, there’s no presidential appearance at all. None needed. Several songs were eliminated and the new, beautiful ballad “Opportunity” was added and sung wonderfully by Annie at a fancy dress dinner (her first red dress in the movie). 

Quvenzhané Wallis has a spectacular singing voice. Jamie Foxx and Cameron Diaz are also good singers. Even Rose Byrne gets some good notes in. The movie is beautifully photographed and the story much lighter and optimistic than the original. Miss Hannigan is more comedic than harassing and she’s redeemed in the end during the new song “Who Am I?” Now, just because all of this sounds as if it would be a perfect family movie, just take it from the woman who brought two toddlers to the theater and sat next to me. Both children became bored early on and were antsy to leave before the first hour. If you love musicals, this is your film. If you hated the Broadway show, this might change your mind. It did mine. In fact, if it weren’t for the competition from Into the Woods it would win Best Musical Adaptation hands down.

Rating: 4 ½ out of 5 Martini glasses.

Henry’s End
44 Henry Street (between Cranberry and Middagh)Brooklyn, NY

The Annual Game Festival was in full swing at my favorite restaurant when I arrived. Henry’s End doesn’t look like much from the outside. It’s little more than a chest-high brick wall surmounted by a window with a neon sign spelling the name (in lower case) and featuring a partial Brooklyn Bridge image. The “A” rating and the menu are ensconced in a glass case to the right of the window and, to the right of that and one-step up, is the door. The black metal safety gate is open, and although it’s still not too inviting, you go in knowing what wonders are inside. A heavy velvet drapery to keep out the cold further complicates the two-door “air lock,” which is difficult to navigate for a slim person in summer – they’re a bit too close together. I saw several patrons get lost in it like players experiencing their first time on a real stage.

However, once past the entrance, Mark Lahm (owner, chef and manager) greeted me by name and led me to a table in the center of the long narrow room. Chatty people having a good time occupied several tables, and the air was dreamy with the aroma of barbeque sauce. “May I prepare you a Happy New Year martini?” says Mark. “Of course.” “Olive?” “Twist.” While he did his magic, several other staff members who know me also sent their best wishes for the New Year. The streamers dangling from the ceiling fans looked like Chinese ribbon dancers above me and the twinkle lights in the back and front windows and over the bar gave a festive appearance to the open brick walls.

Sipping an always-perfect martini I studied the all-too-familiar two-page menu with fond memories of dinners past. Henry’s End is starting their 40th year in business and I’m hoping they have a party and that I’m invited. But tonight my focus is on game. I know the New Orleans Turtle Soup (they get their supply from renewable farmed sources) is always excellent with a shot of sherry but I was hoping for something different. With the help of my young, new server I chose a three-course meal and he was off to put in the order. While I waited, I enjoyed the three kinds of bread in the basket before me – bread sticks, a fruit/nut bread, and a crusty sourdough, all served with a ramekin of soft sweet butter.

The first course sounded like a dessert and, being on the sweet side could have been had it not been so obviously an appetizer. The rabbit strudel with leeks, butternut squash and roasted corn in filo dough accompanied by leaf salad greens was full of many wonderful flavors and the filo dough was lightly crunchy. I was on my journey to culinary Neverland.

The martini finished, I consulted my server on a glass of wine. He selected the 2011 Bogle Vineyards Petite Sirah to go with the next course. The dark red, berry-flavored wine was a nice prelude to the Potato Gnocchi with Wild Boar Ragu. There was almost as many pieces of meat in the dish as there was pasta and both were tender and succulent. The tomato sauce accented but did not interfere with the strong flavor of the boar and the extra cheese my server sprinkled on top completed the dish.

There are very few dishes as exotic as my main course and it was the one I was hoping for – having had it a number of times. The Sliced Kangaroo on mashed sweet potatoes with spinach and a sour cherry sauce was a little tougher than usual but with a leaner texture than beef and a bolder flavor. The combination of the sweet potatoes, spinach and sauce created a lively taste sensation as I dined on it. Having finished the Petite Sirah, I ordered the 2011 Banknote Zinfandel, Counterfeit Vineyards, Sonoma to go with this fabulous food. And it performed its services well.

Knowing the quality of the foods and the expertise (mostly in his sauces) of the chef, I purposely almost starve myself before coming to Henry’s End to ensure I have room for dessert. They had a new one. The Crispy bread pudding with vanilla ice cream topped the meal in a light, but decadent way. It was not as erotic as Brennan’s of New Orleans (my benchmark) – almost nothing compares to theirs – but it held its own. I wouldn’t have wanted the heaviness at that point.

Henry’s End is consistently a place where I feel at home, secure in the knowledge that any dish I pick will be something not only I will love, but will love me back. And I’ve never been disappointed. It’s always more fun when Mark is there and isn’t super-busy with his second place, the Brooklyn Heights Café, two doors away on the corner of Cranberry and Henry because, like the Big Bopper, he “knows what I like.” That’s why, though many restaurants are fancier and glitzier, have elegant presentations and ridiculous prices, I will choose Henry’s End over them all, every time.

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