Martin Kaye’s career is a (mis)match made in heaven. A guy from Manchester, England, shedding his haughty British accent to portray rock ’n’ roll legend Jerry Lee Lewis of Ferriday, Louisiana.
But Kaye is accustomed to such ill-fitting pairings. Check out his feet sometime. The socks, they don’t always match, either. Occasionally, one’s adorned with stars and stripes, the other boasting the Union Jack. But Kaye’s feet are always rocking, bouncing to the beat, whether he’s thundering through “Great Balls of Fire” in Million Dollar Quartet at Harrah’s or summoning one of his original tunes in a solo stage show he calls, fittingly enough, Odd Socks.
Kaye is one of three original cast members in the Vegas version of MDQ, which on August 4 celebrated its 1,000th performance on the Strip. Sharing the distinction of lasting through the production’s full Vegas run are Rob Lyons, who plays Carl Perkins and is a member of the show’s very first cast, which dates to 2007; and long-running cast member Marc D. Donovan as Sam Phillips. But Kaye has the most extensive resume in the city, as he also performed in the touring version of the show that played at the Smith Center for the Performing Arts in June 2012. MDQ opened at Harrah’s the following February.
Kaye’s consistent presence has helped steady the show among the requisite cast changes over the past two-plus years. But “steadying force” does not begin to describe his impact on the production. As the firebrand Jerry Lee, Kaye carries the show comically and is the story’s chief antagonist. In one move that consistently draws laughs, Kaye-as-Lewis turns over a maraca handed to him by Lyons-as-Perkins as if to flip off the rockabilly star. It’s in these moments, or when he slams the piano during “Real Wild Child” and lets his feet fly, that Kaye and Lewis are one and the same.
“This is why I feel like I was born to play this role: It’s so out there,” Kaye says backstage during an interview before show No. 998, which also happens to mark the final performance for Kristen Hertzenberg in the role of Dyanne. “I am basically being myself, but with a different accent and different leg movements and different ways of being. But really, it’s just me being my normal, crazy, energetic self.”
Kaye embarked on a steep and swift learning curve to become acclimated with the role of Lewis. The music of his youth managed to evade the 1950s altogether; his parents favored Elton John and Billy Joel and similarly styled contemporary rock stars; his grandparents rolled out the classics of the ’20s, ’30s and ’40s. As he learned to master the piano from age 3, he knew nothing of Jerry Lee Lewis. By the time he was approached to audition for the U.S. tour of MDQ, he knew only that Lewis sang and played “Great Balls of Fire.”
“I knew nothing else,” Kaye says, shaking his head. “I didn’t even know if he was black or white. I knew that one song.”
But Kaye understood how to play that song by the time he auditioned for the role in 2011. He had been performing as a singing pianist on cruise ships until he was discovered on the open seas by former Elektra Records executive Aaron Levy, who then contacted agent Edie Robb of Station Three Management. She was alerted to the casting call for MDQ in New York City, and told Kaye he should make a run at the Lewis role.
Kaye did that, and added some customary flair, picking up a hairpiece that looked like “a bunch of rat tails” and sticking it on his forehead just before his audition. “Everyone flew on the floor, laughing,” he recalls. “I played and it was falling all over the place. I don’t know if it won me the role, but it helped.”
Kaye still needed to summon the proper acting technique to play Lewis, whose often dark personal story is brushed over with comedic writing (“I married mah second wife before ah could git rid of mah first one,” he calls out, explaining his legendary matrimonial issues). Often, in Kaye’s early portrayals—including his performances at the Smith Center—Kaye nearly reduced “The Killer” to a court jester.
“Three years on, I definitely feel like my portrayal of him has evolved,” Kaye says. “When I first started, I was very cartoon-ey.”
He sought advice from those around him, who said to tone down some of the goofier moments in his depiction of Lewis. “The advice I was being given was try to be more human, more real,” Kaye says. “I took that to heart, and now, believe it or not, it’s a lot more understated of a performance than it used to be—although I think a lot of people would be surprised to hear that if they see the show now. It’s still crazy, but it’s not as crazy as it was.”
Away from the show, Kaye keeps his feet moving, metaphorically and in fact. He’s been embraced wholly by his fellow performers, something he didn’t expect when he moved to Las Vegas three years ago. “This is a tight entertainment community, really close, and that has surprised me,” Kaye says. “You have these preconceived ideas about a place, like New York can be a little cut-throat, LA can be a bit fake, but I did not know what to expect from Las Vegas. What I have found is an incredible amount of support within the entertainment community.”
Evidence of such support is Kaye’s regular appearances at the Composers Showcase, the monthly songwriters gathering at Cabaret Jazz. In just his second appearance at the Smith Center, Kaye asked that event’s co-founder, host and producer, Keith Thompson (music director of Jersey Boys at Paris Las Vegas) if he could simply create a piece on the fly. A live composition, in other words. Such a piece and performance had never been attempted in the Showcase’s eight-year history, but Thompson told Kaye, “Sure, just keep it to five minutes.”
Martin played away, a spirited piece that drew healthy applause—and was lost to time. “Nobody recorded it, sad to say,” Kaye says. “But I was honored to be allowed to do it.”
Kaye’s autobiographical stage show, a mix of storytelling and contemporary rock hits, will itself be showcased on August 29 at Downtown’s Art Square Theatre. Backing him will be MDQ castmates Mark Ferratt on drums and Josh Jones on bass, with the uber-versatile John Wedemeyer on guitar. The Odd Socks title requires that Kaye kick off his shoes and kick up the volume.
And why the mismatched stockings? Kaye’s explanation, “It’s my way of being rebellious without hurting anyone.” He might not sound like “The Killer,” but the guy from Manchester is that, too.
Million Dollar Quartet Monday & Thursday, 5:30 & 8 p.m.; Tuesday, Friday & Sunday, 7 p.m.; Wednesday, 6:30 p.m.; $64-$87. Harrah’s, 702-777-2782.