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Meet the Musical Director

March 24, 2020

Jeff McDonnell is the consummate performer. A charming, warm and witty Philadelphia-based musician, Jeff is a singer, pianist, arranger, and the Musical Director of Open Hearts on Tour.

“I had some experience performing in retirement communities and when Helene explained her mission of bringing music and entertainment to folks who might not be able to get out as easily as they had in the past, I thought Open Hearts was a good fit for me,” says Jeff.

He has been the Musical Director for shows such as Oliver!, The Sound of Music, Brigadoon, Once Upon A Mattress, Sugar, Anything Goes, Annie, Guys and Dolls, Bye Bye Birdie, Cabaret, and others. In addition to his work as a director he has also played in cabarets and concert series such as: The Songs of Harry Warren (Walnut Street Theatre, Philadelphia; with Sheila Weiler, Julia Riva, and John Sannuto); an appearance at New York City’s Carnegie Hall (with Janellen Farmer and Gene Cavanaugh), All Hart: The Lyrics of Lorenz Hart (with Sheila Weiler), and dozens of performances at venues throughout the tri-state region and New York.

Never at a loss for a witty comeback or sly repartee, most people would assume Jeff to be an extrovert; however, the creator of Broadway in Love and Accentuate the Positive is actually more of an introvert.

“Some people are fascinated by the taste and texture of different kinds of food and spices and are inspired to experiment with cooking. Some people are drawn to color and shapes and become visual artists. I can’t explain what it is, but something about the combination of sounds and words draws me in.”

In his shows and in his accompaniment, McDonnell brings a onstage presence that never quits, and comic delivery that delights audiences.

Currently, in high demand performing in solo and duet shows as a singer/pianist, Jeff creates arrangements and provides accompaniment for cabaret artists throughout the Philadelphia region. He teaches piano and voice in his home studio, as well as teaching piano at DeSales University (Center Valley, PA). In the past 11 years, he has been co-teaching (with founder, Jeff Lesser) and accompanying the Philadelphia Cabaret Performance Class, a ten-week class offering students a supportive environment in which to develop their musical performing skills.

“Sometimes it’s the tune – a particular combination of notes (melody and harmony) that just bring a kind of instinctive reaction. Other times, it’s the lyric -a perfect expression of a mood or emotion – that somehow grabs my interest.”

His life in music started when he was a child. His older sister started taking piano lessons when she was in the 4th grade, and when Jeff heard the sounds coming from the piano, he found it “magical.”

“You put your fingers on the keys and music came out! There was a lot of music happening in my grade school: rhythm band for the littlest kids, then junior choir, then senior choir. I was allowed to start piano lessons when I reached the 4th grade and playing the piano became almost the only thing I had any interest in doing.”

He later worked with a piano teacher who worked with the local community theatre and dancing school introducing the young Jeff to show tunes and The Great American Songbook.

“The audiences I meet through Open Hearts love the same music I love, from classic Broadway to the popular songs from the ’40s through today. They always enjoy the music we bring them, and it’s gratifying to talk to them about the memories these songs bring back to life.”

A versatile and skilled accompanist, Jeff has played for Master Classes at DeSales University with composer John Bucchino (“Grateful,” “Sweet Dreams”), and with Broadway performers Liz Calloway (Baby, Evita, Cats, Miss Saigon) and Emily Skinner (Side Show, Jekyll and Hyde, Billy Elliot).

“Since I’m designing my own programs, I can choose music that “fits.” It has to fit me, and it has to fit the piano. It doesn’t matter how much I love a song if I can’t do it justice with my voice and a piano, and my shows for Open Hearts allow me to concentrate on repertoire that works – for me and for the audience,” says Jeff.

When creating a show dedicated to a composer or songwriting team, such as Rodgers and Hammerstein, Jeff dedicates his time to understanding their work. He does a lot of reading, biographical background on the music, and general research on the composer’s life and times.

“I like to get a sense of the people. Were they funny? Were they difficult to work with? Or, a sense of what the process was: did the show come out of a special interest on their part? Was it written specifically for a particular performer? Did that performer end up doing the show?”

Once he understands the basic info about a concept, he will dig deeper into the “newsy info” of a performance, designing the show itself around the familiar pieces and music. He creates the shows with the audience in mind, making sure to entertain as well as educate.

“I’ll challenge an audience with the occasional obscure song. Music can connect people to different periods of their lives but only if the songs are familiar.”

With influences ranging from Kenny Rankin to Kenny Loggins as well as Judy Garland and Barbra Streisand, Jeff’s shows span all the genres of music pitch perfect.

His shows include Broadway In Love, a pastiche of dazzling duets, Accentuate the Positive a revel in harmony and melodies, and Broadway Guys (Entertain You)! with Dan Gray featuring songs from West Side Story to Chicago. All shows feature stories and history about the music and the people.

“At the risk of echoing the old complaint ‘they don’t write songs like that anymore,’ the songs that are generally referred to as The Great American Songbook have melodies that can be remembered and lyrics that mean something.”

Broadway in Love captures the nuances of love – in song. Join Mezzo Soprano, Maja Lisa FritzHuspen, diva extraordinaire, and our Musical Director, Jeff McDonnell on vocals and piano, for an afternoon or evening of musical romance and charm. Featuring favorite songs from Annie Get Your Gun, The King and I, Oklahoma! and Hello Dolly!

Accentuate the Positive features Jeff and musical partner Dan Gray in a show of melodic inspiration, recasting well-known tunes from Broadway, Pop, and the Great American Songbook. The duo illuminates old standards, but also weave in contemporary favorites. Audiences of all ages delight in this happy, upbeat songbook of warmth and style.

Finally, Broadway Guys (Entertain You)!, features Jeff and Dan as they syncopate and serenade you with harmony and rhythm. Featuring medleys from Gypsy, West Side Story, On A Clear Day, and Chicago. Perfect melodic repast with two charming gents.

In his shows, Jeff brings a warmth and a passion that connects with his audience. Not only is he the consummate performer, but also a caring soul who shares his passion for music. With three shows on tour of his own and numerous others under his guidance, Jeff and Open Hearts bring the joy of music to communities throughout the greater Philadelphia region.

To book a show today, visit or call 215-266-1087.

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