LONDON (AP) _ Damned by faint applause and a thrashing from the critics, the Pacific island of Nauru is off to a bumpy start as a backer of musical theater.

''Bird droppings are bird droppings wherever they land,'' the Daily Mail growled Friday, being rude both about the musical ''Leonardo'' and the source of Nauru's wealth.

The Evening Standard called the production ''an extreme load of rubbish.''

The eight-square-mile republic - which is rich from mining phosphate accumulated from eons of bird droppings - was the first government to gamble on a commercial theatrical venture in London or on Broadway.

As the island's Australia-based press officer Helen Bogdan put it: ''Nauru makes its own little piece of history now and then.''

President Bernard Dowiyogo led about three dozen Nauruans at Thursday's premiere at the Strand Theater, having traveled roughly halfway around the world from their equatorial island.

''It was wonderful, fantastic. I saw the preview last year in Oxford and this is much more lively and much more effectively presented,'' Dowiyogo said.

The audience, however, gave it only perfunctory applause.

Why would an island with no theater and no museum back a $3.54 million show about the Florentine master painter of the ''Mona Lisa'' - especially in a climate where far more productions fail than succeed?

Nauru's phosphate deposits are nearly gone, and the government has turned to investments to keep the funds flowing in the 21st century. Nauru owns a 52- story building in Melbourne, Australia; a commercial development in Honolulu, and other properties around the Pacific.

Kelly Emiu, chairman of the Republic of Nauru Finance Corporation, said the island's involvement with ''Leonardo'' started in 1991 in London when he heard a tape of an early production.

''I thought to myself, 'Why not?' Nauru has invested in many things; why not in a musical?'' he said.

''Leonardo'' tells the story of the bisexual painter's attraction to the woman who may or may not have inspired the ''Mona Lisa'' as well as to his male assistant, Melzi.

''The actual story is believable; it relates to everybody's lives,'' said producer and co-writer Duke Minks, 47, thought he admits the story is ''40 to 50 percent fact - the rest is assumption.''

Minks, an entrepreneur from Birkenhead in the north of England who has been based in Australia since the early '70s, first established contact with Nauru as vice president of Citibank in charge of Australia, New Zealand and the South Pacific.

He has guaranteed 18 weeks rent at the Strand, where the show needs to take in about $105,000 to break even. At that rate, the whole population of Nauru could keep the show running 17 days.