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Divas divine: Lauer, Rothrock & friends team up to virtually rock Theatre Cedar Rapids

Lynne Rothrock steps up to the microphone on the Theatre Cedar Rapids stage Jan. 9 during the taping of #x201c;Divas 202
Lynne Rothrock steps up to the microphone on the Theatre Cedar Rapids stage Jan. 9 during the taping of “Divas 2021: An Evening with Janelle and Lynne.” Ticket holders can watch the concert from 12:01 a.m. Friday through Jan. 30. The rest of the cast includes (from left) co-headlining vocalist Janelle Lauer, Dave Ollinger on bass, Julia Andrews on keyboards, Matt Brooks on guitar, Greg Kanz on percussion and Marita May O’Connell on violin and background vocals. (Farrar Design Photography)
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Merriam-webster.com offers up these synonyms for “diva”: goddess, princess, queen. When it comes to Janelle Lauer and Lynne Rothrock, skip “princess” and go straight to “goddess” or “queen.”

They will be reigning supreme from 12:01 a.m. Friday through Jan. 30 in a Theatre Cedar Rapids online concert titled “Divas 2021: An Evening with Janelle and Lynne.” Last names are so last year for fans of the Corridor’s music scene. These divas’ sounds, like their first names, are unmistakable. Alone, they’re dynamite. Together, they’re incendiary.

They also embrace the term “diva,” seeing none of the negative, temperamental connotations sometimes ascribed to the word.

“To me, it means more like a singer who knows who she is and has lived a little bit, and brings that quality of presence and confidence to her singing,” said Rothrock, 57, of Cedar Rapids, known for her cabaret performances.

Divas are singers who “throw in from the tips of their toes to the top of their head,” she added, “and that requires a lot of energy, courage and commitment. And therefore, to other people, it can be intimidating.”

She’s also aware of performers who give “diva” a bad connotation, by making demands for specific room temperatures or a certain number of water bottles.

“I think they do what they can get away with,” she said, “and I’ve learned that I can get away with none of that behavior.” Concert organizers will just hire someone else.

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“When I’m singing with Janelle, we’re not kids who are just playing. This is it — this video is what we’re doing on this planet.”

“I agree with everything that Lynne said,” added Lauer, 50, also of Cedar Rapids, known for belting the blues and R&B stylings. She sees her role as bringing “something to the table that people want to see, and maybe we can inspire people to be better. Maybe we can encourage people to tap into some emotion musically.”

They aren’t new to this TCR Diva gig. They were part of the original Divapalooza in 2006, staged as a fundraiser for Theatre Cedar Rapids. Different iterations of the show and its performers continued from 2008 to 2016, including a 2011 regional tour.

Lauer and Rothrock eagerly jumped back onboard when TCR proposed creating an online Divas concert during the ongoing pandemic. As performers and teachers, COVID-19 shut down most of their revenue streams, so they welcomed the chance to do what they love — even without a live audience.

Changes

But even with physical distancing easy to achieve on the open TCR stage, some of the regulars weren’t comfortable staging a show, so the lineup brings together a mix of the people who typically perform with Rothrock’s cabarets and Lauer’s STP Theatre gang. That includes Marita May O’Connell on violin and backup vocals, Greg Kanz on percussion, Matt Brooks on guitar, Dave Ollinger on bass and Julia Andrews on keyboards. All are pros, and were able to polish the songs they didn’t know, through homework and two masked rehearsals onstage before the taping.

“We are extremely conscious of the fact that we would want to have the least amount of rehearsal time as possible, and knock this out in a way that kept everybody safe, of course,” Rothrock said. “(With) TCR, everything about it was going to always be as safe as possible with everything. But if you start adding a ton of new music that we’ve never worked on before, and with our band configuration being different, that would mean a lot of rehearsal time where you need to be in the same room as people, and that just wasn’t a good idea.”

Rothrock and Lauer chose music their audiences will recognize, including Lauer’s signature tunes, “Walking in Memphis” and “Respect,” as well the fan favorite “Hallelujah.” Rothrock added some new tunes as well, including Sammy Cahn’s “Teach me Tonight.”

The 70-minute concert will feature a variety of styles, from bluegrass and comedy to ballads and R&B, the latter of which is the most fun for Rothrock, “because I get to sing backup with Janelle and feel like a rock ’n’ roll singer.”

Finding their sound

Both were happy to bring O’Connell up to the mic to add three-part vocal harmonies to the show.

“I really love working with Marita in a lot of different ways, because she’s just such an excellent musician,” Rothrock said. “She has an amazing ear for harmony and she’s just such a rock-solid musician, and so I thought of her right away. Also, I love singing with violin, and she’s the greatest. So she seemed like a good fit and when she said yes, it was like, OK, well, I think we can add a third harmony on some of the songs, which is nice, and then also have a little bit of violin in the mix. She’s just a lovely addition to any project.”

“I love her,” Lauer said.

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“The nice thing about this show, and because of who we have involved, is that everybody has to be really versatile,” Lauer continued. “You can’t just do one thing — you have to be able to do multiple styles and whatever that means, whether you’re singing backup or singing a verse or whatever you’re doing. Lynne is definitely versatile. I think I’m pretty versatile. Marita did do some lead singing, but most of it was backup. So I think with all of us, the versatility that we all bring to the table is what complements one another on our different normal styles — what we would do for solo stuff.”

Even though their usual styles are very different, with their training and years of singing together, it’s easy for Rothrock and Lauer to find their vocal blend.

“It’s like shifting into a different hat for a second,” Rothrock said. “And then you’re part of a musical whole ... and you really have to do it the way we practiced it. You can’t pull off on any tangents. So I feel like my ears just tune in and become part of a bit of a different sound.”

Virtual world

While singing together feels very familiar, the most unfamiliar part of the project was performing onstage with no audience energy and reaction to fuel their musical fires.

“At the taping, you’re talking as if there’s an audience there, but there’s no answer there. You can’t feed off an emotion from the audience because there is no audience. So it’s very, very, very strange,” she said. “Like I keep telling everybody: It’s 10 times more work than doing a regular musical, for example, to do a virtual show. And it’s very strange. We don’t have any feedback, nothing, and so you have to find it within yourself to call that performance mojo out and just let it happen. It’s really weird.”

On the upside, both have family and friends from coast to coast, and for Lauer, even relatives in Argentina who will be able to access the virtual concert.

And while they said no one thought live performances would be put on pause for so long, both are happy to have the virtual outlet.

“I think it’s something to be proud of, that as an artist, you continue to try and entertain people through this, rather than just packing it up and not doing anything,” Lauer said. “Believe me, there are days I want to pack it up, but I think it’s important.

“I think if you have a voice, you have a story to tell, you need to get it out there. And at this time, it’s through virtual, and I think there’s something to be said for that being an important thing in this time.”

At a glance

• What: Theatre Cedar Rapids presents “Divas 2021: An Evening with Janelle and Lynne”

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• When: 12:01 a.m. Friday through Jan. 30; ticket holders can watch at any time, and however many times they wish

• Where: Online access with ticket purchase

• Tickets: $25 or pay what you can, at theatrecr.org

Comments: (319) 368-8508; diana.nollen@thegazette.com

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