Timeless Talent

When art imitates life, the hope is that the impact and difference it makes lives on in spite of a tragedy. That is part and parcel to the world of the tribute artist.
When a brilliant artist like Whitney Houston is taken from us in such a self-destructive way, the world seems to focus on her passing rather than in the incredible music she left the world as her gift.
Tribute artist Trina Johnson Finn felt that enormous loss personally, and wanted to remind people of Houston’s music instead. So she put together a show seven years ago, to focus people’s attention on the positive. She wanted them to remember the huge talent that was Whitney Houston — the actress and the singer with that powerful, compelling voice that could move people to tears.
Johnson Finn herself is like Houston in that respect — multi-talented as an actress, powerful singer and producer, so when she was putting this show together, she wanted to get it right. That show is “Queen of the Night — Remembering Whitney,” and she brings it back to Don’s Celebrity Theatre within the Riverside Resort Wednesday-Sunday, Sept. 11-15.
Johnson Finn was born and raised in Kansas City, Missouri, where she studied voice performance and theater at the UMKC Conservatory of Music. She appeared in films such as “Anchorman” starring Will Ferrell; “Breakin All The Rules” with Jamie Foxx; “Bringing Down The House” with Queen Latifah and Steve Martin, and the Off-Broadway theater productions of “Dreamgirls,” “Ain’t Misbehavin’,” “Jesus Christ Superstar” and “The Wiz.”
As a recording artist, Johnson Finn was featured on MC Hammer’s You Can’t Touch This album. She also has toured the globe as lead vocalist with The Family Stone band which featured Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductees Jerry Martini, Cynthia Robinson and Greg Errico of Sly and the Family Stone.
But Johnson Finn returns to Laughlin with only one reason — to salute Whitney Houston.
“I grew up with Whitney Houston,” she said in a phone interview. “She was an inspiration for me as a female singer. When she passed, it was so awful — I cried and cried and cried. I looked up to her, so I felt that when I was putting this show together, I wanted to remember her when she was here in her prime. I wanted the show to be the best of Whitney Houston and her music, not about the negative and bad things she was caught up in.”
Johnson Finn created “Queen of the Night: Remembering Whitney,” as something more than a show with simply a song after song format. That show has evolved into a multi-media show with several elements.
“It’s been seven years now, and we’ve come a long way,” she said. “I don’t get to do the show as often as I’d like to, but I try to do it as much as I can to keep her music alive ‘because everybody loves her music so I just want to keep it out there.”
Johnson Finn said the show has helped both her and audience members come to terms with Houston’s passing, with the music serving as therapy.
“Oh, definitely it has helped,” she said. “The sad part is sometimes people focus on the end of her life and how she left us. But my perspective is there are so many entertainers who have gone through these types of tragedies and it stems from fame — from all the pressures and the things they deal with. People don’t know the inside story of an artist of that magnitude — how stressful and hard it is to maintain your sanity. So people turn to vices to cope, and unfortunately for her, it wasn’t good for her, but she left us with just a ton of beautiful music.”
And the music is the star of Johnson Finn’s show.
“The show itself, of course, is gonna give everybody all of those hits of Whitney Houston,” she said. “It’s very similar to the first show, but it’s changed in the sense of we’ve done it for seven years now. We do it with sincerity, and with just heartfelt emotions for this artist. We want it to be something that connects with people and pulls them in, asking, ‘Do you remember where you were when this song was out,’ and giving you a story.
“I also tell my story of why I love Whitney, and then hopefully that will get you to remember why you really loved her music. We just want to give some insight. I’ve added some video, where I remember her life, and it gives you a span of what she dealt with as an artist, and her accomplishments and just let people see that part of her vs. that negative part of her.
“Those are the kind of elements I’ve tried to bring in more, to let people know this artist gave her everything to us. She just wanted that respect of her love for the music, so just giving people a little bit of her life, just remembering what she gave us is what the show is all about. It’s about Whitney and paying my respects to her as an artist.”
The show includes a band, dancers, and a backup singer in addition to Johnson Finn. Her biggest challenge wasn’t finding talented people in Las Vegas, but keeping Houston’s music relevant for young people.
“When you’re paying tribute to an icon like that you have to ask yourself, ‘is she still relevant?’ I know there are a lot of people who grew up with her music, but then you have the millennials and younger people that are maybe coming to your shows. So how relevant is it to them? Does this music touch their heart?” she said. “There’s so many new artists and young artists out there they listen to and they spend their money on, so you wonder is this relevant to them any more?
“I’m hoping if I can pull some of them in and they hear this timeless music that they become fans, or they’re like ‘Wow, I didn’t know she sang that song,’ or ‘I didn’t know that about Whitney Houston.’ You know what I mean? That’s why I try to tell some stories in between songs, show them some video of her, and then they get intrigued, and become fans as well.”
One of the biggest challenges is nailing that monstrous voice and the talent it takes to recreate it.
“The general public doesn’t know what it takes to accomplish this, to accomplish those feats vocally, like when you saw her in concert in her prime, she was just phenomenal,” she said. “Just the vocal things she could do and the stamina — you don’t get that with artists any more. They’re tracking all their songs, they just don’t have that type of stamina like the Michael Jacksons and people like that.
“It’s very challenging, as an artist to sing like that,” she explains. “It’s years of experience you have to have, and discipline and control, and it doesn’t come easy. You really have to hone in on that, and I know that. As an artist, you really want to do her justice, I know I’m not going to get out there and sing like Whitney Houston, but I’m gonna give the best representation of it and hopefully everybody enjoys it.
“You know when its authentic, you know when it’s coming from the heart — whether they’re an awesome singer or just an OK singer. You know when it’s a real thing. Those artists are the ones who become like her, those that go that far and they last long because it’s from the heart.”
“Queen of the Night” is all that and more, which is why the show has been asked to return to the Riverside.
“I’m so looking forward to coming back to Laughlin,” Johnson Finn said. “I was there last August at the Riverside and they’ve asked me back. So hopefully we can get more people to come and enjoy the music — five good days of Whitney Houston music and our promise is to give you everything we have.
“We have a really fun, fun, fun show,” she added. “I want to take time out to meet the people and just say hello and thank you. So we’re just hoping for a much bigger crowd. Maybe more people can come out and enjoy the music this year.
“In addition to Laughlin, Vegas, and places around the country, I’ve also had the pleasure to take her music around the world the last seven years,” she said. “Just recently in March, I took the show to Malaysia, performing for one of the queens of Malaysia, and in Beijing, China.
“It’s been a cool ride, I would love to do it more often. Putting the show together is easy, it’s getting people to see it, that’s the hard part. That’s my goal going forward, to let as many people as possible see it. To remember this great artist and see what we have now vs. what we had and why we appreciate artists like this.
“Being an entertainer is like a rollercoaster ride — you just gotta hang on for dear life and pray that you can keep doing what you love.”


Don’s Celebrity Theatre within the Riverside Resort

Wednesday-Sunday, Sept. 11-15 (8 p.m.)

See “Showtimes” for ticket info