FOR A small school, Notre Dame de Namur University's drama department always surprises with the excellence of its shows.

This time, in director Michael Elkins' production of perennial favorite "Fiddler on the Roof," he may have outdone himself in bringing forth another life for that well-worn musical masterpiece.

As I have reviewed so many productions of "Fiddler," it takes a lot to get me enthusiastic again, but Elkins brewed a winner by casting a super bunch of students from the school, folding in two adult volunteers and seasoning it all with a supporting bevy of enthusiastic high school actors.

Who doesn't already know the story?

It opens with a fiddler on the roof (Dexter Quito) in 1905 in the fictional little Jewish village of Anatevka, Russia.

The lead character is Tevye, the Dairyman. This is a tough role, central to all of the action, and Michael Reed shows himself to be a major talent in the Zero Mostel-Topol tradition.

Teyve is a put-upon but good and kindly man, with seemingly enough inner strength to face the breaking down of his traditional life from Czarist persecution and the inroads of rising liberalism, a force threatening to liberate his five daughters from the traditional control of the father.

It is a delicate task to verbalize the accents of the Yiddish culture of Russia on the stage. It could so easily slip into caricature. But this remarkable cast never crossed that line.

And, it is a remarkable cast. Julia Louise Hosack is Golde, the wife who knows how to run the master of the house even though he won't acknowledge it.

His special burden is those five daughters whom he must find husbands for. And they are darling.

Tzeitel (Amanda Dreschler) — wishing to marry her long-time love, the tailor Motel (Justin Taylor Nixon) — appeals to her father's heart to break his word to give her to wealthy butcher Lazar Wolfe (Ron Lopez) in a marriage arranged by matchmaker Yente (Marisol Urbano). Teyve bends, but needs to scheme how to make peace with his wife for his perfidy.

Hodel (Laura Nellesen) becomes enamored of Perchik (John Babin), a poor college student dedicated to revolution. He wanders into town one day and begins to shake up some traditions with his modernism. Later, Teyve bends again, with great misgivings, and does not try to stop Hodel from joining Perchik in exile in Siberia.

Chava (Laura Hill) breaks his heart. It was too much to accept her secret marriage, out of the religion, to Fyedka (Justin Basl), a Russian boy in the village.

Finally and tragically, the inhabitants of this harmless little village, where everyone knew everyone else, are driven, by order of the Czar, from the only home they had known.

But all through this tragic story (staged on a marvelous set by R. Dutch Fritz) runs all of the humanity that bursts forth spontaneously from even the most oppressed. The traditional ceremonies, songs and dancing (choreographed by Coleen Lorenz) are the stuff that makes this musical such a treasure.

The traditional costuming designed by Katherine Mills is faithful to the period, and music director Debra Lambert got her small ensemble to sound like a big pit orchestra.