Dream Theater fans are well acquainted with challenge. A hardy, opinionated tribe, they’ve embraced a band that mingles chopsy prog-rock grandeur, metal’s hedonistic thunder, a way with soaring melodies, and a knack for polarizing lyrics. They’ve endured stylistic shifts and contentious personnel changes, and flocked to shows of epic duration.
On Tuesday, the cult’s Boston branch — a rightly possessive sect, since the Long Island band took wing at Berklee College of Music and now boasts a drummer from Newton — was put to what could be viewed as the ultimate test. Standing at close quarters for more than two hours, fans swayed, punched air, and sang along as Dream Theater played its new science-fiction rock opera, “The Astonishing,” from start to finish.
Even for a band known for extravagance, “The Astonishing” is something more: an intricate narrative involving a tyrannical empire beset by a band of hardy rebels urged on by the power of music — the manmade kind, mind you, not the empire’s machine-tooled bleeps and whirs. It’s “2112” meets “Game of Thrones,” with affectionate nods toward young readers’ sci-fi, “Star Wars,” and “Jesus Christ Superstar.”
The opera — brainchild of guitarist John Petrucci, who wrote the book, and composed the tunes with keyboardist Jordan Rudess — has its share of show-stopping numbers. Some, like “The Gift of Music” and “A New Beginning,” will survive to see future Dream Theater set lists. Others — “The Answer,” “When Your Time Has Come,” “Astonishing” — might take root among Broadway belters. In context they mingle in ceaseless sequence with stagey overtures, recurring motifs, and connective segments meant to move the tale along, upholstered with David Campbell’s plush arrangements for orchestra, choirs, bagpipes, and more.
Onstage without those ranks, Dream Theater played with an army of digital ghosts: not just backing strings, but also prominent instrumental and even vocal parts. Throughout, on screens overhead, projected animations depicted characters, settings, and plot points — less a Disney animated feature, more “Xbox: The Musical.”
Belted tightly into its own musical machine, the band sounded formidable while making it all look easy. Petrucci and Rudess, their customary sprints and slaloms tucked into crevices rather than given free rein, still ably conveyed their dexterity. Even cast in supporting roles, bassist John Myung and drummer Mike Mangini could scarcely hide their prowess. Unquestionably, the evening’s star was singer James LaBrie, who juggled his multiple roles with distinction. Though he was clad like his mates in basic rock-star black, his gusto was pure Technicolor.
It all felt excessive, but in its way it was also heroic, a feat unlikely to recur. The faithful — lone, sad, inevitable bellow for 23-years-gone single “Pull Me Under” aside — clearly appreciated the evening’s gravity.
At Orpheum Theatre, April 19Steve Smith can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @nightafternight.